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It’s strange how ideas that have simmered in the policy undergrowth, sometimes seeming to have been totally extinguished, suddenly burst out like bush fire. A dedicated group of academics, policy makers, charities and educational practitioners have long argued for the importance of character development in children’s life chances. Over the last twenty years, as evidence suggesting the importance and teach-ability of character has grown, there have been flurries of interest from the political and media mainstream, but the respective reform models pushed by the last Labour Government and  Michael Gove either side-lined this agenda or positively worked against it.

We may look back on this week as unexpected tipping point with first the All Party Parliamentary Group report on social mobility and now, today, a speech on character by Labour’s thoughtful and self-assured education spokesperson Tristram Hunt. I welcome this shift and if it does mark the beginning of a genuine change in the direction of debate and policy the people who have ploughing this furrow for many years, often with little official encouragement (Anthony Seldon and Yvonne Roberts for example), deserve recognition for their efforts.

But there are both gaps in the evidence and weaknesses in the argument which need to be addressed if its current prominence is to be sustained. One weakness lies in relying too heavily on poor quality or contested evidence.  As outlined by the all-Party Group and Hunt there are plenty of studies that support both the value of character and the idea that there are certain educational practices that help to instil it.

But despite some areas of promise, the gaps in the evidence base here are substantial: research shows strong associations between pupil attainment and certain character traits (such as self-control or positive attitudes towards schooling), but robust, causal evidence of impact is much more limited.  Most studies look at single non-cognitive skills in isolation, and over relatively short timeframes, whereas the evidence is much weaker on the long-term impact of such programmes.  As a recent review for the Education Endowment Foundation concludes, the evidence shows that no single non-cognitive skill is the crucial ingredient or “silver bullet” that predicts positive outcomes for young people.

Furthermore, as Professor Robert Coe patiently explains in this brilliant lecture the biggest thing we know about new educational practice is that little or nothing is proven to have the kind of major, consistent, system-wide effect we might hope for. If a dedicated team of researchers and practitioners try something out in a context in which they are motivated and focussed there is a pretty good chance it will have an effect. Roll that same idea out across a whole system made up of people with different levels of talent and motivation, and against the backdrop of varying contexts and competing pressures, and the clear and hopeful findings from the pilots turn into contested and marginal evidence of change at scale.

Also, even if the argument for character is won, there will still be fierce argument about what it comprises and how it should be instilled. [LB1] For traditionalists the emphasis will be on hard work, responsibility and respect for authority, all of which they will say can be transmitted through a fairly conventional pedagogy, while for progressives the emphasis will be more on emotional resilience, self-confidence and creativity which requires children to have space for self-expression and to feel engaged as partners in learning.

The evidence problem is exacerbated by the tendency in both the All Party paper and, from what I can see, the Hunt speech to treat character development as a means to an end – greater social mobility and better life chances for the individual (usually defined as earning power). But with both the evidence and the concept itself contested, the advocates of character development need to admit to their normative starting bias. Surely part of the reason we want a particular idea of character instilled is because we have an underlying view of what it is to be a good citizen and live a full life. Politicians and researchers tend to fight shy of value based arguments, worrying that they will seem ideological or arrogant, but to hide our beliefs behind instrumentality and weak evidence is ultimately self-defeating.

Finally, I freely admit there is no evidence either for a hunch I have about a missing element of most lists of measures to instil character in the young. What about the nature of educational institutions themselves? On the whole, character is not something we consciously learn, it is imbibed from our experiences and relationships, which take place in the context of formal (schools, colleges, sports clubs)  and informal (families, close knit friendship networks) organisations. Surely, therefore, the character of those organisations and institutions is an important part of the story?

Take just one dimension of this: the RSA has often worked with school leaders in areas experiencing  low standards. Speaking to them a difference is often immediately observable, between those whose attitude to challenge it to take personal responsibility and to be optimistic and those who have a well-developed script of self-pity, impotence and blaming others. How likely is a school, which is led by someone who exudes a mixture of self-pity and complacency, to be the kind of place that – whatever its curricular or extra-curricular offer - teaches characteristics like self–confidence and initiative? Similarly, too few teachers seem confident either constructively to challenge or be constructively challenged by their colleagues. We know a big issue for teenage boys men is brittle self-esteem, I wonder how often they sense the same fragility in those supposed to be their elders and betters?

Unlike one-off policies which often fail when taken out of their experimental setting, aiming for whole schools to be intelligent, character-forming communities focusses on the institutional context itself.

The renewed interest in character is welcome but we need to understand why it has proved a short term enthusiasm in the past and take this opportunity to build a more powerful case.

Many thanks to my colleague, Louise Bamfield, of the RSA's education team for helping me write this blog.


 [LB1]The evidence on the potential impact of the early years is strong, it’s just that the current set of policies aren’t delivering.  The evidence shows that extra-curricular activities are most beneficial when focused on academic learning.  I suggest taking the first part of the sentence out.

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