Damian Hinds is MP for East Hampshire and chairs the All-party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility.
We all remember classmates who got few O-Levels or GCSEs, but went on to become surprisingly successful in their careers. Likewise, there are always those who do very well at school but for whom success fizzles out later.
So, what’s the difference? There is a wealth of research that suggests an individual’s character traits, as much as how bright they are or what exams they get, determine their path in life. The ‘recipe for success’ tends to include self-belief, the patience to pursue long-term goals, the ability to ‘bounce back’ from failures, recognition of the relationship between effort and (sometimes distant or uncertain) reward, and the persistence to keep going.
For many years, our educational focus as a country has been all but exclusively on exam results. Now, leading education jurisdictions such as Singapore are increasingly adding an emphasis on the ‘character development’ agenda. As John Cridland CBE, Director-General of the CBI has warned, “there is a danger that schools become exam factories churning out people who are not sufficiently prepared for life outside the school gates”.
While character skills are not exactly the same thing as employability skills, there is notable overlap:
With more than 60 per cent of British employers sharing the opinion that school leavers do not have the self-management skills required for the workplace, it is essential that there is a focus on the character traits that are required for working life.
One way in which adolescents typically learnt how to cope with work was through a Saturday job. It was here that many of us first learned the reality that your boss will not always appreciate your brilliance, and whoever said “the customer is always right” clearly never worked in retail. From 2001-2004 the number of young 16-18-year-olds with a part-time job was around 475,000, but by 2011 the figure had dropped by more than 20 per cent to 370,000. So schools and extra-curricular activities are ever more important for developing the fortitude needed for the world of work.
Conservatives in government are clear on the importance of character development. As Michael Gove noted in his speech last week, “sports clubs, orchestras and choirs, school plays, cadets, debating competitions all help to build character and instil grit, to give children’s talents an opportunity to grow and to allow them to discover new talents they never knew they had.”
The Prime Minister has pledged to invest £150m a year in primary school sports funding until 2020 if the Conservatives are re-elected, recognising that “quality school sport has benefits that spread right across the curriculum and beyond – it develops confidence and a sense of achievement, it teaches young people how to rise to a challenge, and nurtures the character and skills that will help them get on and succeed in life”.
Today the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility publishes a ‘Character & Resilience manifesto’. It outlines various policy proposals that aim to develop our young people into the rounded, confident, resilient individuals that they will need to be to compete in an increasingly global workplace, so that any child, regardless of background, can be a success story of tomorrow. As we sharpen our focus both on social mobility and attainment in the widest sense, we must care about character as much as GCSEs.