One important thing to bear in mind about any governmental initiative in education is that children are rarely the reason for a policy, but merely an end towards its fulfilment. National prowess, national wealth, reduction in crime, a more peaceable and compliant population, reducing expenditure, how we perform against other countries, and how these translate into “electability” or civic contentment – these are the reasons that govern education policymaking in England at present. The child at the centre of this all, as described by Fazal Rizvi and Bob Lingard in their excellent Globalizing Education Policy (2009),  is supposed to become:

…the self-responsibilizing, self-capitalizing individual that is the desired product of neoliberal education policy reforms….This emphasis on self-capitalizing required across the entire life-cycle replaces the older, more liberal humanist and social democratic constructions of education which were underpinned by education’s multiple purposes. The best economic outcomes for a nation are now deemed to flow from the production of individuals pursuing their self-interest. This is a conception of human beings as at base individual economic beings, an account that fails to recognize the collective social and cultural aspects of human behaviour.

A great example of this is seen in the new guidance from the DfE on character education, published earlier this week, which draws a line directly and in several places between the teaching of character and children’s and young people’s academic outcomes. The former exists to serve the latter. In Rizvi and Lingard’s terms, the policy outcomes desired frame the question that is asked, and also dictate its terms of reference. Thus in the DfE document, character is described as:

  • the ability to remain motivated by long-term goals, to see a link between effort in the present and pay-off in the longer-term, overcoming and persevering through, and learning from, setbacks when encountered;

  • the learning and habituation of positive moral attributes, sometimes known as  ‘virtues’, and including, for example, courage, honesty, generosity, integrity,  humility and a sense of justice, alongside others;

  • the acquisition of social confidence and the ability to make points or arguments  clearly and constructively, listen attentively to the views of others, behave with courtesy and good manners and speak persuasively to an audience;

  • an appreciation of the importance of long-term commitments which frame the successful and fulfilled life, for example to spouse, partner, role or vocation, the  local community, to faith or world view. This helps individuals to put down deep  roots and gives stability and longevity to lifetime endeavours. (p. 7)

But in the next paragraph, the DfE gives the game away by focusing exclusively on those aspects of character education that fit its policy aims – educational attainment, engagement with school and attendance. All three represent a policy triad that seeks to keep children in school and getting better grades. The character argument does not flow into areas of communal health, love, worship or care for one another. It is individuated in its entirety:

  • High self-efficacy, or self-belief, is associated with better performance, more
    persistence and greater interest in work;
  • Highly motivated children (linked to tenacity) driven internally and not by extrinsic rewards show greater levels of persistence and achievement;
  • Good self-control (or self-regulation, the ability to delay gratification) is associated with greater attainment levels;
  • Having good coping skills (part of being able to bounce back) is associated with
    greater well-being.
  • Schools which develop character well help drive equity and social mobility for their pupils.
  • Access to character development opportunities in schools can lead pupils that take part to be highly motivated, report fewer absences and have lower levels of emotional distress, amongst other outcomes. (p.7-8)

The papers that are referenced in making these assertions have titles like “the impact of non-cognitive skills on outcomes for young people“; “out of school activities during primary school and KS2 attainment“; and “using social-emotional and character development to improve academic outcomes.”

This is not to say that academic outcomes are not important. But it is to say that they are not the only purpose of schooling, or even the main one. And in choosing academic outcomes as the benchmark for character education, which by necessity and assessment are individual achievements, it is no wonder that the steps which are advocated, and the  implication of any character definitions chosen, will focus solely on those aspects of character education that lead to higher educational attainment.

The same policy stance then is clearly evident in the thinking behind the 6 questions that schools are encouraged to benchmark themselves against. Despite the policy implication, these are great questions for any school to ask, and in answering them, some serious undermining of the policy agenda is possible.


Question A is a question that all schools should ask, either in this form or in my preferred form “What are we for?” (this is a question that all churches should ask too!). Many schools have not addressed this, not even in their “vision” or “mission statement” which is often construed without the necessary philosophical thinking.

Question B is also a really helpful vehicle to undermine the sort of thinking that lies behind the document, and speaks right into the issues dealt with in the previous post. There is a real piece of work to be done here, that should be significantly different for those schools with a Christian foundation.

Questions C-F are to a greater extent pre-determined by the required policy outcomes, and more work is needed by each school to answer them in a way that is true to themselves and their self-understanding in Question A. This is not impossible, but the DfE agendas are more out in the open and will steer the answers to a greater extent than some school leaders would be happy with.

But here comes the crunch. Each of the above questions has sub-questions, to help “summarise the most important features of character education.” Many of these are much more focused on the policy agenda (articulation of the kind of education provided; making sure all members of the school share our aims; clear on the importance of discipline and good behaviour; does the curriculum teach knowledge and cultural capital, etc).  Whilst others are more explanatory, the sub-questions less wiggle room, intellectually. If you are a school leader and are going to complete this benchmarking tool as a self-audit, best stick to the form above and ignore the direction of the sub-questions until you have finished the audit with a clear mind.

(For a better perspective, much fuller and better reasoned than this DfE report, on how we might think about character education, I refer you to Andy Wolfe’s great Leadership of Character Education (2016) and the talks from this year’s CEFEL conference, which I have summarised here and here.)

Finally, the DfE character education guidance has two annexes: one is a list of organisations that can help schools develop character education; the other is a list of case studies. Some of these are helpful, others are chosen to back up the neoliberal direction of policy travel.

And that’s it. Use, but with great caution.


About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher by profession, now working as an educational researcher, in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011. My work looks to make education effective for the whole child and keeps a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, amateur printmaker, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for children. The views on this blog are all my own.

2 responses »

  1. Bevd says:

    Amazing when secondary schools are recommending that children stop extra activities outside of school durin gcst year. My daughter learns far more about most areas of character from her commitment to other activities. Plus of course 3 hours revision a night for the year and 3 sets of mocks either side of October half term, Christmas ( recommendation they could have 3 days off revision at that holiday) and either side of waster. And we wonder why they don’t have perspective and abalance and are anxious and developing mental health problems.

  2. […] discussed this often elsewhere when I was still leading a school (for instance here, and here). The quote I have used before from Bob Lingard and Fazal Rizvi’s super book on Globalizing Education Policy (2009),  […]

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