Why character development in education might not be such a good idea

A review of a Demos paper. They say: ‘Ways to encourage, incentivise and support every school to prioritise character development.’ We say: ‘More marketing material than research’

Nick Hassey
22 July 2015

Flickr/Phil Roeder. Some rights reserved.

Character development is a current hot topic in education. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s stated aim is to make England a “global leader” in the development of children’s character and she has committed £10 million to make this happen. At a time when all aspects of our education system are facing cuts, such an investment is a good indication of the political importance attached to this issue. In this report Demos try to set out policies they believe will effectively embed character development into our education system.

The report’s structure and content make it clear that it is aiming to influence policy makers, rather than attempting to inform a wider audience by providing analysis of the broader research into character development. The consequence of this approach is to create a misleading impression that “character” is a well-defined and understood domain (like a subject) and that we know how to develop it.

In reality, research into character development is at a very early stage and there is a long-running debate in psychology about whether the various positive “character” attributes discussed in the report can actually be developed at all. This debate is mentioned on page 26 in one sentence, after which it is then simply brushed over and ignored in the rest of the report.Top of Form

More troublingly, in some instances the authors do not accurately represent the conclusions of existing research. For example, the literature review carried out by Gutman and Schoon for the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is referenced as providing support for their argument that character development boosts academic outcomes. What the EEF actually says is that although non-cognitive skills are indeed correlated with academic outcomes, “evidence of causal mechanisms is limited”; “less is known” about whether it’s possible to develop them through intervention; and that even those that do strongly correlate with outcomes “appear to be more akin to stable personality traits rather than malleable skills.”

The EEF report is a systematic review of the available research and is a more reliable evidence base on the state of character education. It makes it clear that there are large gaps in our knowledge, that the best evidence is limited to a specific sub-set of cognitive skills (commonly referred to as a growth mind-set), and that more research is needed. This nuance is not reflected by the Demos authors.

Other research that is accurately reported unfortunately does not logically connect to the recommendations. The authors held a number of workshops with a wide range of participants, including teachers and education experts. The main findings from these workshops were that character “should not be used as another layer in high stakes accountability”, it is hard to come to an agreed definition, and it is even harder to measure it objectively. Participants felt it was best left to schools to develop their own approach to character development to fit their situation and that “we don’t need to show measurable values for success or failure”.

However the authors’ main recommendation is that character development should be included in the Ofsted inspection framework and placed on an equal par with attainment measures. The current requirement for schools to develop students ‘socially, morally, spiritually and culturally’ would be subsumed within this beefed-up expectation of character development. All of this would add further burden to schools in the high stakes accountability system, and also require that schools somehow develop objective measures of character (success and failure criteria) in order to prove their compliance to Ofsted. The authors suggest that this enhanced burden would be eased by removal of the requirement to promote “British Values” – but the requirements for character development seem very similar to those for British values, so again, this may be a replacement rather than a removal.

There is a similar issue in the recommendations that character development should be added to Initial Teacher Training, and that time should be added into the school day to allow students to reflect. The authors do not make the case for either additional resources to meet this new need, or provide evidence of what might be sacrificed to achieve this new requirement in a resource-neutral approach.

There are other issues too, most importantly a clear conflict of interest. The report is written in partnership with the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, who are providers of character education programmes, and some of the recommendations suggest wider use of programmes and tools developed by the Jubilee Centre.

Character education is an interesting area which may have great potential, but as yet there is no convincing evidence base or clear direction on the best way to develop it. In their eagerness to make an impact, Demos have got ahead of the data and made recommendations that are not well grounded in the research, and do not take account of the wider environment. Factoring in the potentially significant conflict of interest, this report feels like an opportunity wasted, and is more marketing material than research.


This article was originally published on Think Tank Review. To keep up to date with all best from all the UK think tanks, subscribe to the Think Tank Review weekly newsletter.

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