Character Education is a Waste of Time

One Man In His Time Plays Many Parts

Today I had the honour to debate the following at the Policy Exchange Think Tank in London: ‘Is Character Education a Waste of Time?’ This was further explained by the Chair, Jonathan Simons in this way: “The issue is… can we teach it [character] in the formal way, in the same way as we teach other subjects…?” (You can hear the debate on the audio link below)

This was my contribution:

I never thought I’d be sharing a platform with Toby Young let alone debating a motion where I am on the same side as him. Toby is an extraordinary character as is Anthony Seldon and James O’Shaughnessy, extraordinary characters all. I feel a bit of fraud, a walk on part, sharing the stage with these lead players in our national narrative.

I must admit to something, paradoxically, my day job is to teach character… I am a drama teacher by trade and some people think drama in the curriculum is a waste of time so I am very well placed to discuss this topic.

In Old English Caracter meant a symbol marked on the body or an imprint on the soul. At an ‘Option evening’ a year 9 boy came over to my table with his dad to inform me he wanted to take drama for GCSE, his Dad said: “My son wants to take drama, can’t think why, when I was at school drama was for poofs!” The imprint of that character has remained on my soul…

In theatre, it is said, that an actor knows how great a part is by how many choices the character has,… moral dilemmas if you will. Brecht called this the ‘not… but…’ I am not going to do this, but I am going to do this… For Brecht’s characters the choices were often bleak. He talked of a corridor with doors, the actor has to show the door the character chooses and also all the ones they rejected. May I venture this idea? Character is partly how we respond to choices. And our children have so many choices these day, some glorious, some bleak, they wander our corridors, and are often lost.

According to Childline more children are considering suicide than ever before, with more than 34,500 calls from under 18s talking about killing themselves. Social media, more angst about the future, more pressure to perform, might be part of the problem. The teenager who killed the well loved teacher Ann Maguire talked about how “It’s kill or be killed. I did not have a choice. It was kill her or suicide.”

We need schools and other institutions to have more time to listen and help rather than add to the burden kids already feel with more telling them how to behave, believe me, as a teacher, they get A LOT of this and we don’t need kids worrying about whether they’ve done their character education homework or not. Schools need strong pastoral systems, spotting and supporting children when they need help, this is often when they are faced with difficult choices or having made wrong choices they need love and support. A good counselling service in a school, with good connections to mental health services, is worth far more to character development than ersatz character lessons.

In schools to support character development we need to model humanity and discuss what it is to be human throughout the curriculum, in the context of of what children are learning and experiencing. This is especially possible through the arts. For Keats, the soul is the self as formed by the narrative of life. And indeed this narrative can involve many versions of who we are…‘one man in his life plays many parts’… School should help us form and understand our own and others’ ‘narratives of life.’

The reason that people are perceiving a lack of ‘something’ in education might be because the curriculum has narrowed. With the introduction of the English Bacc arts subjects have seen a decline. Now some schools are adding another hour or so of maths and the humanities are being squeezed. If we then add an hour or so a week of ‘character’ lessons something will have to give. The curriculum is becoming all STEM and no flower, how is that going to help kids with the narratives of life?!

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues says that: Character education is about the promotion of a core set of universally acknowledged cosmopolitan virtues. But are these so called virtuous ‘cosmopolitan’ characters really what we need? How about naughty ones? In the summer of 1884, the headmaster of Ascot Prep school for boys wrote on Winston Churchill’s report card: “Conduct has been exceedingly bad; he is not to be trusted to do a single thing… [he] has no ambition.” Would taught character lessons have knocked these behaviours out of him? Maybe difficult times call for difficult characters rather than those with ‘universal cosmopolitan virtues’?

Aristotle wondered whether family or state is the best institution for sponsoring education in virtue. He, mistakenly, chose the state. Mao insisted that education should instil proletarian and revolutionary virtues. Yes, you knew where this was going: the Hitler Youth indulged in three activities: physical training, training in the National Socialist world-view (brainwashing) and character building. (The Nazi Virtues for Youth included: Honesty, Order, Loyalty, Honour, Duty, Discipline, Self control, Resilience (Hardness), and Courage…)

Interestingly, in Tsarist and communist Russia, the Russian intelligentsia never trusted the state to act as arbiter of cultural norms: Vospitanie (Upbringing incl. moral education and inculcation of values, though a contradictory view is available here) was inculcated by family, or individual role models. I’m with the Russian intelligensia it is not the job of the State, or schools on behalf of the state, to tell us what characters we should aspire to be.

But even if we wanted to follow Hitler and Mao and go ahead with formal lessons in character, for the scientifically minded, the important question remains: does formal character education work?

No, there is no strong evidence that it does. EEF report nov 2013: not much “is known about how far it is possible to develop a young person’s ‘non-cognitive’ skills through intervention, or whether such changes lead to improved outcomes, especially in the long-term.’ ‘Some non-cognitive skills including ‘grit’ and self-control correlate strongly with outcomes but appear to be more akin to stable personality traits rather than to malleable skills.’

Formal character education is as relevant as Astrology.

Separate lessons in character are wrong headed because they will further narrow the already narrowed curriculum. School should help us reflect on who we are and what it is to be human, rather than give us an arbitrary list of state sponsored or company sponsored virtues which are wrong headed because though they hint at a universality they are cliches that don’t get near to the truth.

Instead let’s have a rich and varied liberal arts curriculum, lets give children access to the best that has been thought, said and done and lets get them to add to the best that’s been thought, said and done. Let’s give them real and authentic experiences and choices through which they might enrich their narratives, their characters.

The explicit teaching of character IS more than a waste of time, and by squeezing the curriculum and being explicitly taught in an unimaginative, satisfy Ofsted tick box way: it could also be a diminution of the character itself.


For interest:

Links for Character Ed:


University of Pennsylvania Resilience Programme

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Developing character at King’s Science Academy…

Kipp Character Report Card

‘Why the development of good character matters more than the passing of exams’ by Anthony Seldon

James O’Shaugnessy’s Address to Lord Wandsworth school

Knightly Virtues Programme (Jubilee Centre)



Here is the audio of the debate and the video is here


12 thoughts on “Character Education is a Waste of Time

  1. A fascinating post and one that consumed a good deal of your time I would guess.

    I would be very interested to know what exactly is meant by the “explicit teaching of character”. I surmise that character is formed by a mixture of nature and nurture. I would further surmise that the nurture often involves learning from example which would, I surmise arise via a solid set of values adhered to.

    I am not sure how one would “teach” character as in explicit instruction; I would be interested to see some examples. One could easily teach and discuss the concept of character clearly, but this would not lead necessarily to character development in the individual.

    For me it hinges upon what we actually mean by “teach” character. My view would be that providing an environment within which character could be developed in a positive way is teaching.


  2. Reblogged this on Values Soup and commented:
    Some very useful contributions here to help those concerned about the growing move for the explicit teaching of character. The focus on humanity, experiential learning and the opportunities (time and space) that may exist with the current lifeworlds of the individuals and the school to explore, question, build and reflect on values underpinning character is most welcome and very much in tune with the approach we take through the project. All of our experience suggests that the imposition of values (or character) is a non-starter. This is about deep personal identity and being. There is a level of neglect in the way this is being approached by those with power in education at the moment and this is where I feel we get to the elephant in the room – power and the need and desire to control.
    Society needs to be challenged and remodeled to reflect the changing realities of our liquid modernity – holding onto a past that has caused so many issues is misguided and short sighted and the imposition of those character traits that underpinned this is simply nonsense – unless of course you are one of the (increasingly) few who benefit from this.
    We need an honest debate around these issues and not a short term election response from a dept that does not even know what values are and seemingly from the current funding process, even know what the school year is. Where is the sense in a grant to work with schools running April 2015 – April 2016 – which school year does that fit with? Nonsense.

    Speak up, share other voices, create a broader narrative, join in.


  3. Yes! There is no evidence that character education is needed and no evidence that it works.

    In fact, the only reliable, scientific study was a U.S. federal study, conducted October 2010, the largest and most thorough ever. It concluded that school-wide Character Education programs produce exactly ZERO improvements in student behavior or academic performance.

    It’s no surprise. Just take a look at the lists of values and goals of the dozens of competing CE offerings. The lack of agreement between the lists is one of the most damning aspects of character education! It also becomes obvious that the majority of the values follow a conservative agenda, concerned with conformity, submitting to authority, not making a fuss…

    One thing all these programs do agree on is what values are NOT included on their lists of core values. Not found, even though they are fundamental to the history and success of great nations (and great men like Churchill) are such noted values as independence, calculated risk, ingenuity, curiosity, critical thinking, skepticism, and even moderation. “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” the famous saying by Ms. Frizzle on the much celebrated TV show, The Magic School Bus, embodies values that would be antithetical to those found in today’s character education.


  4. Hi Martin – you’ll see just above this that I linked to this post in my (inaugural!) blog post “Why we get so confused about the purpose of education”. If you’d be willing to browse the post and leave any feedback should you think it warranted (for good or for ill), I would be most honoured.

    Best regards,



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s