True grit or good citizens: should schools teach character?

Friday 2 November, 19:0020:30, Unitarian Church, 57 Ullet Road, Liverpool L17 2AAUK satellites


Activities aimed at building resilience, raising self-esteem and mental wellbeing, and developing citizenship skills have become priorities in many British schools, often placed on a par with the achievement of good academic grades. While previously associated with ‘softer’ pursuits like volunteering in the community or taking part in arts and cultural activities, there has been a shift towards more rigorous approaches to building character and ‘grit’. Defined in terms of teaching young people to understand what is ethically important in difficult situations and how to act accordingly, character education is becoming a central part of the curriculum in US, Australian and British schools. While enjoying widespread support among teachers, parents and politicians from all parties, some criticise the narrow focus on personal ethics and individual success, which replaced an earlier emphasis on civic engagement and citizenship.

Perhaps in recognition of these concerns, the government recently pledged almost £10million for projects aimed at teaching ‘fundamental British values…of democracy, the rule of law, liberty, respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’. Just under £5million has been directed towards projects aimed at ‘instilling a military ethos’ of self-reliance, shared responsibility and determination. Schools can now enlist veterans from across the armed forces offering mentoring and classroom support to teachers, to help build strength of character and foster empathy, self-awareness and teamwork among pupils. Across the Channel, the French president, Emmanuel Macron recently announced a new-style ‘Universal National Service’, aimed at encouraging young French citizens to take part in the life of the nation and involving an element of service in areas linked to defence and security.

‘Character education’ and ‘citizenship education’ are based on a perceived decline in social cohesion, active citizenship and standards of discipline in schools. But are pupils today really any less robust, resilient, civic minded or well behaved than previous generations? If that is the case, who should be taking a lead on developing self-respect, good manners and social responsibility? Should building character be part of the national curriculum or is it a distraction from acquiring knowledge?