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Character and the development of the well-rounded citizen


24 Feb 2015

James Law, University of Newcastle, reflects on a session at our national conference.

Panelists for this session were:

  • Jean Gross, EIF founding trustee; former Government Communication Champion for Children (chair)
  • Dr Kevan Collins, CEO, Education Endowment Foundation
  • Paul Johnson, Director, Institute for Fiscal Studies
  • James O’Shaughnessy, Director, Floreat Education and Mayforth Consulting; former No 10 Advisor to David Cameron PM
  • Joe Hayman, CEO, PSHE Association
  • Kate Frood, Headteacher, Eleanor Palmer School

The answer to the question posed is pretty obvious. Should schools be responsible for fostering good, well-rounded citizens or just for their academic success? Everyone, would agree that they should and that the dichotomy is false. Clearly children need both but, underlying the proposition, there is an assumption that the former was, in some way, being sacrificed to the latter. This raises as many questions as it answers.

We all want our children to be well-rounded, but in focusing on this are we suggesting that it is a peculiarly English problem? Is there good evidence from PISA or other international surveys that English children struggle acquiring the necessary attributes in a way that they appear to do, for example, with literacy. 

And do we know that schools do little to promote those attributes? We were told that, some 80 years ago, the school’s role in raising attainment split somehow from its role in fostering the wider skills of the children and that this chasm had now to be bridged and the two brought together once more, modelled, it was suggested, on practice in ancient Greece.

The focus has, of course, shifted in recent years to “character”, a term that has certainly achieved currency amongst policy-makers, as witnessed by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s funding initiatives to promote this aspect of the child’s development. Character is to become part of the Ofsted framework from September 2015 and there is a suggestion that it should be a statutory element of the personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) curriculum. The Education Endowment Fund is also looking to fund interventions to promote character.

Yet we need to be specific about the use of such terms and how they should be applied. Are we talking about Heckman’s “Big 5 Soft Skills”: conscientiousness, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and emotional stability? At times, the discussion seemed to take us in the direction of religiosity and “eternal truths”, and there was a reference to children needing love and a spirit of belonging. But who needs to be taught “character” – is it all children or only some who need the extra support? Are these skills instilled in the children by schools or are they really fostered in their families and their communities. And, finally, do soft skills exist in isolation, separate from the child’s broader, and many would say underpinning, learning and other abilities (such as communication skills) which play such a pivotal role in children’s development.

In terms of delivery is it fair, in a packed curriculum, to ask teachers to add in something extra without being specific about what they should drop? One could argue that the demands of the national curriculum effectively edged some of the more qualitative “character” dimension of education out of the syllabus in the first place. And, if soft skills are to be included in the curriculum, should they really be a separate entity or something that should pervade all teaching, the very warp and weft of education?

In all, this was a very thought-provoking, if at times rather slippery, discussion, characterising some of the challenges that the EIF and other What Works centres are trying to address.