Knowledge –
it builds character

UK education secretary Nicky Morgan recently announced a new education initiative ahead of the Rugby World Cup. Schools up and down the country, she said, will be welcoming premiership rugby coaches into the classroom in order to help students develop strong ‘grit and resilience’. It is part of Morgan’s ongoing drive to develop ‘character education’ in schools. At a time when many are concerned about children’s basic levels of literacy and numeracy, such a bland and uninspiring project, unconcerned with anything remotely academic, seems suspect.

Morgan announced that more than £500,000 will be allocated to 14 professional rugby clubs to ‘design and deliver programmes to use the sport’s ethos of discipline and respect to build character and resilience in pupils’. The project is one of 14 initiatives to receive a share of the Department for Education’s (DfE) £3.5million character grant scheme. Morgan has said that the scheme will give children the ‘chance to fulfil their potential and achieve their high aspirations’, and help the government achieve ‘real social justice’.

While this particular initiative, coming as it does amid the campus war on rugby teams and ‘lad culture’, is a somewhat welcome promotion of the positive aspects of sport, the character-education scheme more broadly is one in a long line of government programmes that completely misunderstands social justice and the positive contribution education can make to children’s development.

A subject-knowledge-focused approach to education has, once again, been pushed aside in favour of a therapeutic approach, which is more concerned with teaching children the ‘soft skills’ they apparently need to navigate the modern world. While those children lucky enough to attend the top independent schools learn the classics, read great literature, study histories of human civilisation and marvel at the wonders of the universe, state-school pupils, perhaps considered too ‘vulnerable’ to tackle hard subjects, receive a rather less demanding education. Hence, rather than encouraging pupils to look beyond themselves and learn about the great triumphs of humanity, schemes such as Morgan’s urge state-school pupils to focus on the development of narrow ‘life skills’.

Worse still, when subject knowledge is removed from the classroom, replaced by demands to impart ‘skills and confidence’ in pupils, the authority and academic expertise of the teacher is sidelined. Without the ability to offer students something of inherent academic value, teachers become increasingly superfluous.

If this government is to achieve ‘real social justice’, it must have faith in the ability of state-school pupils to grapple with the best that has been thought and said. By helping pupils understand the great achievements and triumphs of humanity, we can impart to younger generations the confidence to go out into the world and make their own mark on history. That’s character in anyone’s book.

Christopher Beckett is a writer and researcher working in the education sector.

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