Can Labour’s education policy build character?

Character education and its impact on social mobility was not an unpopular topic at Labour’s conference this year. As well as the National Citizen Service-Progress fringe, The Scout Association, UK Youth, Sports Leaders UK, NIACE and the Association of Colleges all discussed it, with many at Conservative conference covering the same.

Not many gave the opportunity to hear directly from Tristram Hunt and Alan Milburn on it though. And it’s safe to say that there has been a head of steam building around the topic for some time. As well as Hunt and Gove making policy announcements to encourage the development of the attributes of ‘character’ and ‘resilience’, Nicky Morgan announced last week that ‘character’ is to be the fifth priority for the Department for Education in a Conservative-led government, although it is yet to be shown what that will mean in delivery.

For many who do not work in the education or youth sectors it might appear to be a fluffy sort of policy, a ‘nice’ thing to do … If you have even got past the jargon to know what it means. But an increasingly large amount of research links development of ‘character’ and ‘resilience’ to social mobility.

Recent research by The Sutton Trust discovered children from the richest fifth of families are four times more likely to enjoy paid-for extra-curricular activities than those from the poorest fifth. Access to these skills is still held by those who come from wealthier backgrounds, or attend private schools, which pride themselves on the level of extracurricular support they provide – a point well made during the fringe by Milburn and repeatedly made by Andrew Adonis over the years. Milburn’s suggestion that this attention to non-formal education should be matched by the state is one that I hope comes to fruition. And if every private school opens and/or supports an academy in a deprived area, as suggested by Adonis, to fulfil its charitable status, this would not be a tough ask.

The Labour party recommends a national baccalaureate. Non-formal learning can and should have an important role to play within this framework – particularly in relation to the personal development programme and extended study or project. A process of brokering partnerships should be established, and a number of non-formal education organisations recently came together to meet and make this recommendation to both Hunt and Ed Miliband’s Education policy advisers. This included The Scout Association, Girlguiding UK, Brook, City Year, Youth at Risk, UK Youth, NUS, Leap Confronting Conflict, NCVYS, London Youth, Step Up To Serve, the Foyer Federation, Street League and YouthNet. It is not often that the youth sector comes together to make such a coherent and joined-up policy suggestion, as Milburn challenged in the fringe. It is indicative that this is important, it matters and it can work.

It could be transformative to see the universalism of compulsory education replicated by the non-formal methodology many of these organisations deploy. The two can be complementary rather than competing or undermining the quality and/or robustness of either.

This idea is not new either. The Americans have been talking about ‘grit’ and its place in the curriculum for a long time. Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence requires schools and teachers to consider a child’s full sphere of learning. It includes both what they can learn formally in school, and what they learn out of school, with overarching curricular themes including skills for learning, life and work, literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing. Scouts Scotland is just one organisation that has mapped its own educational outcomes across the CfE’s.

I completely agreed with Hunt that ‘the current exam factory model is not producing “college-ready, career-ready and life-ready” young people, and that we are ‘foolish’ to call ‘character’ and ‘resilience’ soft skills instead of ‘vital social skills’. He also points out that schools that focus on it do better academically.

However, Hunt’s line has been specifically about bringing ‘character’ into the classroom. It is critical that we do not limit provision to this. School is an efficient way of reaching universality, but the classroom cannot be the only way. It’s not best learned with a single period lesson tacked on the end of the timetable, or by completing a worksheet. It is learned through opportunities for leadership, time away from home on expeditions, learning to fend for yourself, the ability to succeed whatever obstacles life puts in your way.

We all have a responsibility to narrow the gap in life chances between children from different backgrounds. Politicians have a responsibility to make access to non-formal learning equal. If we don’t, the impact that we have on our young people is actually to widen the gap in life chances, and do those children who need our help most, a disservice.

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Lauren Crowley works for The Scout Association. She tweets @Lauren_Crowley

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