Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A little bit of character goes a long way

Today, Tristram Hunt is calling for schools to do more to develop character among young people. Quoting Winston Churchill and the idea of ‘British spirit’ was a clever way to ensure today’s speech got some good Sunday coverage.

As a former teacher I can also imagine that there will be a fair amount of resigned sighing or angry harrumphing in staffrooms this morning about this latest demand on the teaching profession as reports need writing, excited children need calming and the end of term seems just too far away.

But I think teachers should see this call as a massive vote of confidence. If anything demonstrates the power of education and teaching then it is the ongoing assumption that many social or economic problems could be solved if only they were included in the school curriculum or promoted in schools.

The reason why the Trojan Horse issue in Birmingham resonates so loudly is because we have taken for granted that schools are the places where young people learn to live together, to be tolerant, to behave with respect regardless of each other’s background. Last week the Department for Education issued a rather pitiful, advisory set of guidance on how to promote British values. This guidance and the earlier headline-grabbing announcements by Michael Gove have achieved a double whammy. The guidance adds little of use to the ongoing practice within most schools of personal, social and health education and citizenship, but also landed the Department for Education in a row when it tweeted that it was nonsense to expect schools to promote gay rights. It is a strange British value which puts a limit on tolerance and respect to avoid getting into a row with a newspaper or with religious extremists!

Tristram Hunt’s intervention and the Demos project it is linked to are a much more interesting and significant intervention in the debate. Demos is piloting work to see how teaching character could work in practice and how extracurricular activities could help to develop self-esteem and confidence.

Schools’ primary responsibility are to equip young people with the reading, writing and number skills to be able to access the rest of the curriculum and working life. But, assuming this is done, there is a real responsibility for schools to broaden the creative and social horizons of their pupils. These are the developmental skills and opportunities which stay with us for life and unfortunately they remain unequally distributed.

I can still remember the time my school hockey team took an 8-0 drubbing – I was in goal and got hit on the head by a stick during the match. Explains a lot, I hear you say. However, I am not advocating a return to the old days of no head protection for hockey goalkeepers, but, as Tristram rightly says, the ability to overcome setbacks is crucial to building resilience in a world where young people face myriad pressures in their work and social lives.

Why do parents who can afford it provide music, sport and other activities for their children? It is because they recognise the developmental opportunities they bring. The challenge for a progressive government is to open up these opportunities for all. I am enormously proud that our government invested in school music, that school sports coordinators enabled many more children to ‘enjoy’ being hammered at hockey by a neighbouring school, and that our work on extended schools brought extra support to schools and teachers in providing these opportunities.

But enormous inequalities continue to exist. Tristram rightly focused last week on the responsibility of publicly subsidised private schools to play their part. I am involved with a newly formed campaign to open up summer camps and residential activities to many more young people. There is a limit to what we can expect schools and teachers to add onto their current onerous responsibilities. We need some imaginative thinking about how we can draft in external support for this important work. Winston Churchill and Tristram Hunt are a powerful duo, but I suspect we will need a Labour government and for many of us to step up to the mark in volunteering and providing other support if we are to enable all children to get the breadth of experiences at school which we expect for our own.

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Jacqui Smith is a former home secretary, writes the Monday Politics column for Progress, and tweets @Jacqui_Smith1

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Photo: rockinpaddy

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Jacqui Smith

is a former home secretary and writes the Monday Politics column for Progress

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