The former secretary of state for education, the Conservative MP Nicky Morgan, has written a book on “educating for 21st century character”.
I can hear the cries already from under-pressure teachers and heads wading their way through this year’s latest data set: “if only she’d thought about that when she was in charge” or “if we weren’t having to deal with huge budget-cuts, teacher shortages and the biggest upheaval in exams in a generation, we might be able to think about character” and so on.
These criticisms are all reasonable.
However, to be fair to Morgan, she has written a well evidenced, argued and clear book on why developing character and all that it entails is critical to equipping children and adults for the changing world – and, as she argues, for closing the gap between the advantages and expectations of those in private schools and those in the state sector.
Given her profile and prominence within the Conservative Party, her tome must surely carry significant weight within ministerial ranks.
She did not choose this topic for her first big intervention in the education field since leaving office at random. While she and I crossed swords on many occasions as adversaries in the Commons, not least on her plans to force all schools to become academies, I was well aware both of her attempts to make character education a higher priority and her desire to make PHSE compulsory in all schools. Unfortunately, she was consistently blocked by David Cameron.
Her book draws heavily on frontline case studies, and she has clearly done her homework, with visits and discussions with heads and teachers. As such, she provides an extensive probe into the issues from a position of experience, without the I-know-best-based-on-my-own-narrow-experience-and-ideology approach we often hear from some of her past and current colleagues.
To be fair to Morgan, she has written a well evidenced, argued and clear book
The first part of the book explores what we mean by character education and asks whether it is measurable. Morgan takes from the leading research as well as from a number of schools to highlight some key themes: resilience, self-confidence, self-reflection and aspiration.
While the thrust of her book is clear, that character education needs to be an explicit, not implicit, goal for schools and educators, she seems keen that character does not become a “measured” aspect of school life, for fear of unintended consequences.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was her pulling her punches or trying to avoid further political meddling, or both. Depending on your point of view, this is either a strength or weakness of the book; it is less of a handbook for delivering character education and more of a political case for increasing its importance.
The second half makes the case that improving character improves results, can close the social mobility gap and is necessary for the new world of work. Nicky implores schools to be the driver of the agenda by prioritising character education in the knowledge that results follow.
I think here’s the rub, and it’s why those on the frontline have a point: schools under pressure from Ofsted and the DfE will say, with good reason, that until they improve their results, often in very difficult contexts, this “add-on” will always be seen as just that. Moreover, schools dealing with new exams and assessment frameworks will struggle to implement new methodologies and policies on character.
Overall, Morgan’s book is an important intervention into the debate about what education is for and, given her profile, will allow for this debate to broaden from the last few years of ever narrowing outcomes. She makes a strong case in a readable and relevant style. While it isn’t a handbook on how to deliver character education across a school, it is thought-provoking, and will hopefully push this agenda in government and within the educational establishment.