Lucy Frazer is MP for South-East Cambridgeshire.
By the time we reach 18 we are likely to have spent about 10,000 hours at school. Our school years are formative years. And it should not just be qualifications that we leave with. Schools have an enormous opportunity to teach character and values to the students within them.
Education is not simply about multiplication and metaphors; it is about who we are as individuals, how we interact with the world around us and what contribution we make to our own society.
We have known this for millennia. Aristotle recommended that the city provide a system of public education for all citizens; that young people should not only learn to read and write but also aim at human flourishing, or eudaimonia – appreciating the beauty around them and understanding how the universe works. In considering what we can learn from the ancients, we must also consider what values we want to impart to the next generation.
The role of key values within our education system is clear to see. Take school mottos, for example. The Perse school motto states: “Qui facit per alium facit per se” – he who does things for others does them for himself; whilst that of The Trinity School, Croydon, is “Vincit qui patitur” – he who endures conquers. These mottos teach us respect, perseverance and community.
The importance of principles has been recognised from the outset of the development of the national curriculum. The 1988 Education Reform Act established a framework for the development of the national curriculum, underpinned by two core aims: to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils, and to prepare pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life.
The National Gurriculum of 2000 also acknowledged the need for ‘a broad set of common values and purposes’, and this government has gone further in promoting the importance of character education, announcing awards worth up to £20,000 each for schools and organisations that are already doing excellent work in character education.
The difficult question is not whether character teaching is important but how we teach it – and how, if at all, government can regulate for it.
The first and possibly most important point is that we must practise what we preach. Our teachers have an important job as role models. As James Baldwin wrote: ‘Children have never been very good at listening to their elders but have never failed to imitate them’. If teachers believe in what they are doing, then the students will too.
We must also recognise that this education does not stop at the school gates: parents must engage with teachers to ensure that we promote a holistic approach to character building, reinforcing the values that we seek to promote during the school day, and vice-versa.
Secondly, these principles must form part of the school ethos. Character cannot be taught in a single lesson, but rather can only be formed through a constant dialogue with students. In Sweden, it is not seen as a separate subject: rather, it is integrated into other subjects that are taught. Students should be encouraged to debate and discuss key moral dilemmas to develop rational approaches to issues that will face them in adult life.
And finally we need to track progress. It would be beneficial for schools to help students record their character goals and track their own teachers’ and school’s progress. In this there is also a role for Ofsted. But we must ensure that character learning does not become a one size fits all ticking box exercise. We must not aspire to build identikit children, but rather recognise that these core values will find different expressions in each child.
The importance of this approach cannot be underestimated. The teaching of values and character is essential to ensuring not only that children are rounded individuals but also that each generation is aware of their role in society as a whole. As Cicero said – “within the character of the citizen lies the welfare of the nation.”