Stephen Lane reviews a book with strong arguments for the importance of character education but too little ackowledgment of its pitfalls

What are schools for? This deceptively simple question can generate fierce debate. Some assert that schools are academic institutions that should focus primarily on domain specific curricular knowledge. Others insist that schools should develop more generic skills. For my part, I see this as something of a false dichotomy. In reality there is a plethora of perspectives that sit between these two poles and encompass elements of both. But at the heart of all this the question remains: what are schools for?

Ultimately, I believe the aim of schooling is pastoral. What we strive to achieve is individual and societal wellbeing or, better still, eudaimonia – a word that is probably best translated as ‘flourishing’.

In this timely volume, Arthur and his co-authors present generally interesting and convincing accounts of their various perspectives on this, bringing together a range of potentially disparate ideas under the umbrella of character.

The book comprises essays from five figures acknowledged for their significant roles in putting character education firmly into the national discourse. James Arthur begins with some theoretical grounding and gives us a thorough overview of the work of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham. Nicky Morgan outlines the place of character education in schools, charting its rise to prominence in the work of the DfE and Ofsted. Julia Cleverdon gives an account of her work with various iterations of the #iwill campaign, extoling the benefits of youth social action for individuals and communities. James O’Shaugnessy presents a brief history of character education in policy and its move from niche to mainstream. Finally, Anthony Seldon gives an amusing and touching biographical account of lessons he has learned about why character education is important.

The book is predicated on the assumption that character education is A Good Thing

While Seldon’s contribution is the most personally engaging, the most interesting and potentially useful chapter is probably O’Shaugnessy’s. This chapter is well grounded in the practicalities of school leadership and offers some ideas about what character education might actually look like in schools, citing his experience with Floreat and other specific examples too.

Morgan’s contribution gives a fairly convincing argument for the necessity of character education, with reference to research findings that show its positive impact on various measures. She also raises a note of concern about some manifestations of character education that risk being somewhat utilitarian. This is a concern echoed in O’Shaugnessy’s chapter where he notes the effects of a target culture that rose during Tony Blair’s time in office and has not abated.

Cleverdon’s chapter on youth social action makes reference to some research findings as well as providing specific examples from practice; I particularly like her account of a school that encouraged its students to see themselves as “Special Agents of Change”.

The book is predicated on the general assumption that character education, in its various guises, is A Good Thing. Yet, while I admire the significant commitment the contributors have each made in their careers to developing character education, it is a mistake, I think, to imagine that is not uncontested. None of the authors give any consideration of criticisms of character education.

In addition, while they do warn against utilitarianism, there are too many uncritical references to what employers are looking for, among them ‘resilience’ and ‘grit’ – potentially toxic ideas.

The blurb suggests this “could very well be the most important book you read all year”. I don’t think it really warrants that claim, but it is nonetheless an interesting and relevant read. I am particularly fond of the call for schooling to be seen as being about far more than examination results, and pleased to read in each of the chapters an appeal for schools to encourage students to look beyond themselves, to participate in ways of being and thinking that aim to do good.

Sadly, the book does too little to account for why these appeals still need to be made. Unless and until that’s figured out, ‘the most important book’ on character education remains to be written.