Taught Not Caught: Educating for 21st Century Character by Nicky Morgan

This is Nicky Morgan’s first book, and unlikely to be her best one. For as a writer, the former Education Secretary, and present chair of the Treasury select committee, has yet to find her voice.

The book is only 138 pages long, but to read it is a severe test of character. For Morgan writes in the opaque and clotted jargon so often used by educationalists who long ago abandoned any desire to make their thoughts intelligible, let alone attractive, to the general public, and instead address themselves exclusively to other educationalists.

Her volume has been welcomed in The Times Educational Supplement by Geoff Barton, the General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, who praises it for being “inclusive and not ideological”.

That is true, and is a perfectly respectable position for a Conservative. Morgan calls for “a One-Nation character education policy”. She slightly spoils the effect by attributing One-Nation conservatism to Benjamin Disraeli, when as Lord Lexden has recently reminded us, it was actually founded by Stanley Baldwin, albeit using language from Disraeli’s novel Sybil.

But leaving on one side the history, almost everyone will agree with Morgan that schools should, indeed cannot avoid, forming the character of their students, as well as developing their academic abilities. As she puts it here:

“My belief…is that we will fail to really turbocharge the social mobility which can be provided by education if we don’t offer all pupils both a knowledge-rich, academically rigorous curriculum and the building of social capital identified by the Head of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School.”

Morgan quotes a number of educationalists who have identified the need to teach “character traits such as resilience, persistence, grit, leadership, self-awareness and self-efficacy” in schools, and adds that the “buy-in” of staff and parents is required.

Who could disagree with that? Cyril Connolly for one, in his account in Enemies of Promise (published in 1938) of his preparatory school:

 “‘Character, character, character,’ was the message… Muscle-bound with character the alumni of St Wulfric’s would pass on to the best public schools, cleaning up all houses with a doubtful tone, reporting their best friends for homosexuality and seeing them expelled, winning athletic distinctions – for the house rather than themselves, for the school rather than the house, and prizes and scholarships and shooting competitions as well – and then find their vocation in India, Burma, Nigeria, and the Sudan, administering with Roman justice those natives for whom the final profligate overflow of Wulfrician character was all the time predestined.”

Connolly says that from one of his schoolfriends, George Orwell, he discovered there existed an alternative to character, “Intelligence”. And more and more intellectuals came to share their view that there was something stupid, philistine and brutal about the idea of character being promulgated in such schools.

And so there was. But the answer to this was to develop a more intelligent, civilised and gentle idea of character, not to suppose that one could neglect the moral and spiritual welfare of one’s students, and fail to prepare them for the trials of later life, by ceasing to inculcate the virtues such as grit, persistence and leadership with which Morgan is concerned in this book.

Fee-paying schools generally made these adjustments, for apart from anything else they were well aware that the mothers, and even the fathers, of their students would no longer tolerate the brutalities which used to be regarded as such a valuable part of an English education.

Morgan laments that some state schools take less trouble than the independent sector to develop “strong character traits”. At times, she may be too gloomy about this. At university, state school pupils sometimes show a greater capacity for independent study than those of their privately educated contemporaries who were spoon-fed in order to emerge with straight As, and are lost without the history teacher who served up these delicious, bite-sized morsels.

At the end of her book, Morgan says: “Legislation or guidance from the Department for Education is definitely not the answer.” Her last words are: “What’s your next step?”

That’s right. It’s up to us, not the officials. Let’s keep them out of it. Morgan says “public awareness needs to be raised”. Could her next, much more outspoken and less tactful volume, be devoted to that task?

But the paradox should not be forgotten that some of the most inspiring teachers are always those who are in some sort of rebellion against the official system with its goody-goody injunctions and its desperate anxiety never to cause anyone any offence.