Nicky Morgan on character education

September 22, 2017

As a collective, the senior ministers responsible for education in England since the Second World War have been a rather literary lot. The book you choose might depend on your political tastes, perhaps Anthony Crosland’s “The Future of Socialism” or Quentin Hogg’s “The Case for Conservatism”—or if you’re feeling very pessimistic about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, the occupant with the shortest time in the job, Richard Law, produced “Return from Utopia”, arguing that using state power to build Utopia is both impossible and evil.

Or, if you are in search of political reflections, at either end of the time period, both R.A. Butler and Alan Johnson wrote highly recommended memoirs full of rich anecdote about their lives and views. Between them comes the autobiography of one Margaret Thatcher, very much summa cum laude (so far) in terms of subsequent ministerial office on the list.

What is perhaps surprising, given both this bookish output and that several of the office-holders had some experience in teaching, at school or university, is that none has written a substantive book about what we should be teaching our children in schools.

Until now.

On Monday evening, Policy Exchange hosted the launch of “Taught Not Caught”, Nicky Morgan’s new book on the necessity of character education in our schools. Morgan makes a powerful case for ensuring that our children are raised at school with the values we want and know that they will need. She showcases the work of several schools, in diverse circumstances—some extraordinarily challenging—who have made real strides through a focus not just on academic outcomes, but also on the sort of people their young people are, and will be.

As a former teacher with a decade of experience, I have the scars from such unhelpful and unenlightened projects as Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning or SEAL, pronounced like the marine mammal, and Personal Learning and Thinking Skills or PLTS, which had no convenient pronunciation, but however it was said, it was always with a sense of jaded cynicism by the teachers concerned. These laid an additional burden on teachers with endless guidance, none of it of much use to either them or their students, and cost curriculum time which could have gone on academic learning children did need and I was trained to deliver.

Because of this, I was prepared to be sceptical of Morgan’s ideas. However, I found Morgan—and Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor of Buckingham University, pioneer in application of character education in the independent school sector and our second speaker on Monday—determined to avoid a conflict between academic endeavour and character education. Given Morgan’s background, this is perhaps not a surprise. She inherited from her predecessor as Education Secretary, Michael Gove, a resolute focus on the essential importance of a knowledge-rich, academic curriculum for all children—an idea I came to believe in very strongly as a teacher, and one Policy Exchange supports and is currently working hard to develop further.

Despite being quite different in many ways—she and he did not share a side on the EU referendum—Morgan committed to both Gove’s curriculum work and the structural changes in English education he wrought, which involved schools run by local councils opting out to become academies. Indeed, had the results of that referendum not resulted in governmental upheaval, Morgan would have presided over a vast expansion in the number of academies, on the road to an all-academy system.

Morgan’s book reflects both aspects of this legacy: as noted, she argues that to choose between educating for academic success and educating for character is a false dichotomy. But, whilst she does want government to support her ideas, most of the book is taken up with describing how current practitioners, in the school system right now, do effective work on character. In a way few of those who have served in central government have managed, she has remained committed to the value of freeing schools from unnecessary bureaucracy and therefore is most interested in what teachers are doing for themselves and for their pupils, without state instruction.

The argument over the role and form of character education in English schools is nowhere near over, but Morgan has made a refreshingly clear and honest contribution, drawing on her ministerial experience but still strongly alive to the value of input from those at the chalkface, and that humility and openness is no small achievement.

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