On Character Education: A Response From Scotland

Gary Walsh who tweets here and is the Executive Officer for Character Scotland has asked if I would publish his response to my latest post on ‘character education‘.

I have written three blogs specifically about character ed, if you’re interested, the other two can be found here: 

Character Education Is A Waste Of Time

Have We Got The Character To Educate For Character?


“I am always inspired and impressed by Martin’s blog entries even if I don’t always agree with everything in them. This particular offering was no exception on all counts.

At the risk of being self-indulgent, it feels important to put some of my cards on the table. I work for an educational charity called Character Scotland. I’ve taken a circuitous route getting there, which I thoroughly recommend by the way. I am a classically trained musician. I went from there to education to working for organisations mainly in the non-profit sector supporting children young people in schools, including ChildLine for instance. I often ask myself: “how’d that happen”? I suppose I gradually lost interest in my subject per se (music) and became more interested in young people themselves and their development. Or to put it another way, perhaps I realised that young people had in fact been the subject all along.

I am relatively new to the ‘character’ game and I find it fascinating: mainly because it has its problems and its opportunities. There are accusations, arguably well-founded, that it is right-wing, paternalistic, old-fashioned and deficit-based. Notable critics of character education – Martin included – describe its exponents as a draconian lot who see themselves as something like moral oligarchs, looking down upon the Dickensian masses, having morally questionable motivations themselves.

Character assassination of the character educators.

Don’t get me wrong: there are probably at least as many approaches to character education that I would not agree with as there are approaches I would support. Then again, I would probably say the same of education itself.

Working in my job at Character Scotland and studying for a Masters entitled ‘Young People, Social Inclusion and Change’ has opened my eyes to the extent of my left-leaning, libertarian, social-constructivist disposition, and the accompanying biases and assumptions I carry with me. Like a lot of people I know, I feel a fairly consistent state of outrage at gross injustices while struggling with the idea that morality is subjective (to paraphrase something I saw on Twitter recently…).

Goodness me: it turns out that I am a wishy-washy artsy liberal.

I ask again: “how’d that happen”? And surely my own ‘character’ is completely incompatible with the Conservativist, orthodoxical, navel-gazing-guilt-fest of character education! I am either a spy in this character education camp, completely misguided, deluded or uninformed. All of these are possibilities.

The thing is: I don’t actually feel as though I am operating in that particular camp. I do not recognise those descriptions in myself, the people I work with or the practitioners with whom I am engaged. Nor have I actually met anybody in that camp come to think of it. Does that camp even exist? Perhaps it does, and maybe there is even a place for it in the grand scheme of things, but it doesn’t particularly interest me.

It is right to point out that character education can be used as Trojan Horse for all kinds of agendas – political or otherwise – as Martin is doing. Nicky Morgan recently announced her plans for the future of education in the UK, making clear that she wants young people to have “character and resilience” and to be able to “persevere against the odds”. This is arguably just a statement of Conservative politics in its most energetic form; a focus on individualism and a denial of the state’s responsibility to REDUCE the odds while requiring those struggling against them to do so on their own with minimal support (…did I mention my liberal outlook?).

I am currently exploring how Scotland is delivering character education. I say that deliberately: I would argue that we are already doing it here and have been for a while, although not everybody would describe it as such. The purpose of the education system in Scotland is to develop the capacities of young people and to equip them with the values, knowledge, skills and attributes necessary for life, learning, work, citizenship and sustainable development. Exploring what those values (etc) might be is part of the fun of it. Sure: literacy and numeracy are vital but there is a recognition that education in Scotland is about more than exam results and performance measures. It is ultimately about PEOPLE and about making some kind of contribution to a better world. The system is far from perfect, but it seems like a pretty good starting point and I feel lucky to be contributing to it in my own way.

I have not come across much appetite in Scotland for approaches to character education that could be described as behaviouristic, didactic, inhumane, paternalistic or dare-I-say an indulging exploration of abstract moral reasoning or Aristotelian ethics. We are exploring a set of approaches and ideas, the aspirations for which I would describe as humanistic, humanitarian, youth-led, dialogic, democratic, exoteric, relevant, inherently value-based and socially just, underpinned by a fervent belief that human beings are fundamentally ‘good’ i.e. we all have assets and strengths and where we are lacking, we can change and develop. We are not looking at character education as a set of formal lessons or activities but as a way of viewing the purposes of education itself: it sits on the shoulder, not on the shelf. It is also an attempt to identify the social structures that allow positive values and attributes to manifest.

Most importantly: it is about improving outcomes for young people.

This feels very different to the rather depressing discourse around character and values I am observing south of our border. It feels important to point out that the criticisms of character education seem to be about the context in which it is being introduced, the underpinning ideologies and the methods of implementation: all of which are concerns I would share. Taking the further step of ascribing these criticisms to the broader concept of character education itself seems a bit disingenuous and unhelpful to me.

It may well be that character education has simply been dominated up to now by people with conservativist leanings. There is an opportunity therefore to address that imbalance. It is a matter of squaring a circle and ultimately arriving at something along the lines of a ‘working dissensus’. It seems rather unfortunate that the agenda south of the border seems to about pushing for conformity dressed up as consensus.

Perhaps the difference is that in Scotland we are looking at character as a means and not an end. We are not ‘fixing the kids’: we are trying to empower and enable them to fix the world, if indeed anything needs fixed at all, and to learn a bit about themselves, their fellow humans and the world while they are doing it.

On this point, Martin and I evidently completely agree: that education is or could be an enquiry as to what it means to be human. He might call that a liberal arts education. I might call it character education. Academics such as Barry Schwartz use both of these terms synonymously. Lexical semantics: potato, tomato.

Others would just call it education.

“We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.”

Martin Luther King, 1947

(I would broadly support this view apart perhaps from the use of the word ‘transmit’)

My hope in offering these thoughts is that it frames a useful debate and encourages further dialogue.

So, what do you think?


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