The recent white paper Educational Excellence Everywhere states that the Government is set on: “Building character and resilience in every child” It continues by stating that:
A 21st century education should prepare children for adult life by instilling the character traits and fundamental British values that will help them succeed: being resilient and knowing how to persevere, how to bounce back if faced with failure, and how to collaborate with others at work and in their private lives.
A gradual process of establishing the fundamental British value of knowing how to bounce back if faced with failure, a kind of ‘Dunkirk Spirit’, if you will, finds itself nestling in with collaboration, perseverance and resilience. I suppose those might be British values or, indeed, the character traits of adults, the traits that clearly do not feature in Ian Duncan Smith’s personality as his resignation proves he is poor when it comes to perseverance. His resignation letter also proves a damning indictment of the character of Osborne, implying that collaboration is an issue for the ex St Paul’s boy as he is unable to fashion the spirit of ‘we’re all in it together…’
The character of these Government ministers does not display the stated fundamental British values, is this a failure of their education? Is this the sort of thing that this white paper will ensure never occurs again? Will everyone pass the British character test?
The white paper continues:
These traits not only open doors to employment and social opportunities but underpin academic success, happiness and wellbeing… There are many different methods and the government has no intention of mandating a particular approach.
Fundamental British values underpin academic success? I’m not sure if this is borne out by the evidence, immigrant communities seem to perform well, if anything the long tail of underachievement, as it has been known as for years, seems to be fundamentally a trait of the indigenous population.
Maybe these traits – character and British values belong only to the successful and retrospectively we can blame misery on the lack of collaborative work and lack of resilience… Sorry, let’s think this through… Failure seems to be important, if you are able to ‘bounce back’, Chumbawumba did a song about it:
I get knocked down
But I get up again
You’re never going to keep me down
Pissing the night away
Fundamental British values of getting drunk, knocked down, getting up again… The value of failure – in an economy that is struggling at best, to put everything down to individual character is harsh to say the least but getting up and smashing the system might be a show of character…
But that would be anger… the white paper seems to extol the idea of happiness. The positive psychology movement and the smiley yellow self help gurus with their books are making their mark, but is ‘happiness’ a fundamental British value? Isn’t a good degree of pessimism or ‘mustn’t grumble’ grumbling the reasonably positive traits for those of us born in these Isles? Our sense of humour delights in our collective misery, our ‘happiness’ might depend on an attitude towards tragedy and the rocks that are hurled at us in the every day. Unbridled happiness might diminish the attitude of stoic irony that sees us through the downsizing economy and the efforts of our ‘Betters’ to ensure we are ‘happy’.
Many schools across the country already offer a wide range of imaginative, character-building opportunities to their pupils and our vision is for schools to increase their range of activities, based on strong relationships with local and national businesses, and voluntary and sporting organisations.
I’ve got nothing against this, it’s all to the good, though, depending on the business and what it intends to do with the child to ‘build their character’. It might be that the youth build their character through shifting trolleys around a windswept car park, which does indeed ‘build character’ and it might build a sense of ‘stoicism’, though it would be stretching it to call it happiness. This is where the ‘science’ comes in…
…we will work with the Behavioural Insights Team and What Works Centres to develop tools that schools can use to identify the most successful approaches to building character in their pupils, and to track how well those approaches are working. We will also work with expert organisations to provide a platform where teachers can share best practice about character development, evaluate new ideas, find professional development materials and contribute data to build the evidence base.
We will ensure evidence-based approaches to character development are built into initial teacher training programmes; and work with networks like teaching schools to spread the most effective approaches to developing character in schools. Finally, we will deliver a new round of Character Awards, recognising the schools and organisations which are most successful in supporting children to develop key character traits.
This is where things might get sinister. As Theodore Dalrymple puts it:
The inherent tragic dimension of human existence [is] a dimension that only literature (and other forms of art), but not psychology, can capture, and which indeed it is psychology’s vocation to deny and hide from view with a thin veneer of science. Without an appreciation of the tragic dimension, all is shallowness; and those without it are destined for a life that is nasty and brutish, if not necessarily short.
This thin veneer of science will be placed over ‘character’ as though we can define it, measure it and judge whether the building of it is successful or not. What arrogance! This is government with a missionary zeal to convert your very self, not materially, but personally. This is government that feels its superiority, that is government by the Übermensch and they will use science to fool you into thinking that there is one way to be if you wish to be successful. This is shallow. It is also a sign of a culture in crisis. A confident culture can tolerate difference, opens itself up to conversation and argument about different ways to be, a society that tolerates, that knows it takes all sorts to make up the values that we could ascribe to be British or, indeed, human.
Who is to say what are the ‘key character traits’? This would imply cracking the human code, knowing the answer to what it is all about. Knowing the why and implying that we can codify these traits and all agree what that code might mean in practice. What nonsense, do we want a society where our very characters can be categorically measured against others?
To develop character the school day will be extended to include:
additional activity to help develop young people’s character… high quality instruction and coaching in sports and the arts, alongside activities such as debating, scouting and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.
knowledge-rich curriculum [will be] complemented by the development of the character traits and fundamental British values that will help children succeed
That knowledge of the arts and great literature can bring depth and richness to the conversation about what might constitute values and character traits that could be considered positive I do not doubt but to write these things in stone will not add to human knowledge, indeed it will surely diminish our knowing of these things. Imagine the shopping list of traits and all schools buying into the lesson plans provided by some well meaning ‘virtuous’ entrepreneur who determines to sell us the super scheme of character work. Imagine the character passports. Imagine the inset day with the humble consultant extolling the value of humility or whatever the list comprises. Hubris.
The white paper continues:
A 21st century education also promotes integration so that young people can play their part in our society. Schools and other education providers have an important role to play in promoting the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual tolerance and respect of those with different faiths and beliefs, while developing the knowledge, critical thinking and character traits that enable pupils to identify and challenge extremist views.
Mutual tolerance of those with different beliefs, but not ‘extremists’, does that include UKIP? Identifying and challenging extremist views does that mean taking on Jeremy Corbyn? Why not identifying and challenging views, critical thinking is not just about some uncritical idea of what is extreme and this is not, critical thinking is a continual process, it can’t be written down as a list of acceptable opinions. Tradition can provide parameters for us but it should not be above critique. The, so called, British value of Individual liberty is a nonsense if you tell people what to think, what opinions they should have, and how their very character should be constituted.
What is British, maybe, is that, like our language, these things come from ‘below’, through our civil life. Character and characters, awkward and harmonious, come to us from our living life and by allowing everyone the fullest life possible by opening up opportunity and education to all throughout their life can do much to encourage the richness of this process.
There is much in the white paper that can help, including the extolling of programmes like the Duke of Edinburgh award, the national voluntary service, debating, sports and the arts. Put money into all of this. Invest in teaching not just Maths until eighteen but a breadth of subjects and, most importantly, the arts as it is the discussion around great art that can add so much to our understanding of ourselves and what it means to be human. A liberal arts approach to the curriculum, crowned by a baccalaureate with breadth and depth might be a good way to help deliver a richly humane education.
But, please, spare us the character ‘science’ and the pursuit of British values, it just isn’t , well, very British.