A question of character
by Matt Grist
Today we saw the final report of the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel. It is quite striking that the report adopts language Demos has used for quite a while – talking about the character of individuals as being important for life chances, as well as for creating a more responsible and self-governing society. However, I have reservations about some of the recommendations the report makes.
First, let’s define character. It is not an innate and fixed set of traits. It is rather a set of skills and values that show themselves in habits and behaviour. We might take a stab at naming these skills and values: the ability to stick at things; to exercise self-control; and to empathise with others’ needs. All of these skills and values are learned through practice – through doing and seeing what’s done.
Our research on character shows that it is very important for educational attainment, success in the labour market and personal wellbeing. It is also mainly passed on through the way parents bring up their children.
In terms of interventions to build character, there are some parenting programmes that do work, but these are expensive. It seems very unlikely there could be the resources to work with 500,000 ‘forgotten families’, as today’s report recommends there should be. Such an undertaking would be gargantuan, equivalent to intervening in a coherent and sustained way with approximately 7 per cent of the population. Not very likely to happen.
Other recommendations of the report are that schools publish their policies on building character; that Ofsted review character-building in schools; and that primary and secondary schools regularly assess pupils’ character. The first of these recommendations makes a category mistake: it treats character education as something that can written down as a policy and explained. But character is inculcated in all sorts of subtle interactions between people. As such it is not susceptible to being explicitly codified as policy.
As for regularly assessing character in school, the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire is a well-established tool that is quite good at uncovering some aspects of character, and is widely used to diagnose behavioural problems. But the idea of regularly testing school kids sounds awful – if all kids took the tests, gaming and distortion would be rife, as it is in all mass testing systems. If only some kids took the tests, they would stigmatise.
The final recommendation – that Ofsted reviews how it inspects schools on character – sounds sensible. Ofsted inspectors are people not checklists and they can get a sense of how an institution builds character – that is, they can make a judgement.
But let’s not put all the onus on schools. The best thing they can do for reducing a sense of hopelessness and nihilism in young people is to provide a really good education – hence, Sir Michael Wilshaw’s claim that not a single Mossbourne Academy student was involved in the riots in Hackney.
There is much to like in today’s report. It is certainly right to urge action on pupil referral units, which are often a disgrace. And we should be thankful that the report has been brave enough to say character matters at all – a welcome shift in the debate away from pure criminality on the one side, pure socio-economics on the other. But many of the recommendations around character are impractical, which is bad news, because character is the most practical thing in the world.