Values for Money: Character Education for the Twenty-First Century

Posted on November 2nd, 2017 by Suzy Dodd

Suzy Dodd explores the value and implications of the UK government’s initiative on improving ‘good character’ in education.

How, precisely, can we define good character? Various studies have indicated that morality and virtues are subjective concepts, particularly amongst young and/or multicultural communities. Until October, conceptualisations of good character at the policy level were largely based on those of the Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham. “Resilience” features in the Jubilee Centre’s set of positive values, alongside such diverse (and occasionally contradictory) traits as “humility” and “confidence”, or “autonomy” and “service”.

There is now, however, a much more explicit focus on the economic impact of good character. Earlier this month, the current education secretary, Justine Greening, announced that Nicky Morgan’s landmark character education grants would be scrapped. This must have been an incredibly frustrating move for Morgan. Her long-term work on character education is now evidenced by nothing but a book which, to date, has only received one review on Amazon. The reviewer gave it one star.

Greening, apparently as unconvinced by Morgan’s work on character as her online reviewer, has scrapped Morgan’s only concrete ministerial successes in this area: a £3.5 million fund to provide grants to character education projects; a series of £20,000 awards for organisations doing “excellent” character education work; and a £1 million contribution towards relevant research by the Education Endowment Foundation. The utter absence of any information regarding the destinations or research value of these assorted funds supports education data analyst Jack Marwood’s 2015 assertion that “these awards [were] a gimmick”.

Morgan’s grants will be replaced with a geographically-limited, refocused scheme aimed at building good character in young people: Essential Life Skills. This new DfE strategy will be delivered in the government’s ‘Opportunity Areas’ – towns or zones identified as “social mobility ‘coldspots’”. The first six, for example, are Blackpool, Derby, North Yorkshire Coast, Norwich, Oldham and West Somerset. Although details on the contents of the Essential Life Skills programme have not yet been released, it will be designed to build “wider skills such as resilience, emotional wellbeing and employability” amongst young people, and will be delivered and supported by a range of agencies, including “local ‘cornerstone’ employers” (e.g. EDF Energy, Barclays and Rolls Royce”). Since Morgan’s departure from the DfE, character education has become less about improving civil behaviour and enabling individuals to flourish. Even more so than in its previous iterations, it is an increasingly neoliberal, allegedly economy-boosting strategy that openly aims to anticipate post-Brexit market volatility.

The idea that character education and, now, Essential Life Skills derive from a paradigmatic neoliberalism in English politics is not necessarily a criticism; many studies evidence its potentially positive outcomes. It is vital, however, to address the inherent issue of blame. Nicky Morgan has presented character education as a panacea in various Commons debates, arguing that it could alleviate educational disadvantage, improve voter turnout amongst young people, and improve mental health, to list only three recent examples. Indeed, Greening’s malaphor describing Essential Life Skills – “it is vital that we raise the horizons of young people” – is an appropriately (if unintentionally) quixotic example of governmental continuity here.

Furthermore, David Cameron and the Jubilee Centre’s academics have argued that character education is the solution to the “moral rot” they see afflicting the young “underclass”, leading to the 2011 London riots. The classist and ageist assumptions underpinning this stance are symptomatic of a wider tendency to blame the disenfranchised for their own disenfranchisement. The 2011 riots were caused by a combination of social factors, many of which were created or exacerbated by government policy. That the government then bemoaned a lack of “honesty, decency and a sense of duty” amongst the rioters as the cause of their distress is hideously ironic.

Considering that the new Essential Life Skills initiative has been explicitly touted as a part of the government’s preparations for Brexit, then, it is likely that this practice of nationwide victim-blaming will exponentially increase in the case of a negative outcome. “If only they’d been more resilient and employable”, the 2025 government will lament, if our GDP evaporates and the economy buckles. “If only they’d taken advantage of our fantastic Essential Life Skills Programme. Moral rot, I tell you.”


Suzy Dodd is a full time secondary school teacher. She is currently working as a research assistant on the Youth Politics research pathway with James Weinberg.


This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre; the Designing for Democracy project; or the Understanding Politics blog series. 

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