UK officials scrap ‘landmark’ character education program

Former British education secretary Nicky Morgan described a multi-million dollar character education grant program as “a landmark step for our education system” when she unveiled the plan in 2014.

Now it’s gone, replaced by new Education Secretary Justine Greening with an Essential Life Skills program that’s geographically restricted to 12 areas in the country designated as social mobility “cold spots,” reports.

The $4.5 million Character Grant program was rolled into the larger, $28 million Essential Life Skills program, though education officials did not mention the change when they announced the new program in early October.

“The government has also announced today that £22 million will be shared among all 12 Opportunity Areas through a new Essential Life Skills programme, to help disadvantaged young people have access to the same opportunities as those in the top-performing schools. The aim is to help them develop wider skills such as resilience, emotional wellbeing and employability. The programme will complement the individual Opportunity Area plans by providing extra-curricular activities, such as sports, volunteering and social action projects, which give pupils the opportunity to develop leadership skills,” according to the government announcement.

The death of the Character Grant program was revealed by Morgan, author of Taught Not Caught: Educating for 21st Century Character, after she pressed parliament about the fate of her Character Grant program. Education official Nick Gibb responded in mid-October that the program “has closed.”

“The term ‘life skills’ is a bit utilitarian and does not say much about flourishing,” Morgan said.

“The proof is in the pudding—let’s see which organizations get the funding,” she said. “If it goes to develop the same character traits, I understand if that means a change in its focus to these areas.”

The government announcement cites important virtues like “resilience” and “emotional wellbeing” as elements of the new initiative, but it’s clearly more focused on “employability” and “access to opportunities.”

“Local independent partnership boards—made up of school leaders, business owners, council leaders and other local partners—will work to boost attainment from the early years of a child’s education right through to university. Other initiatives include projects to raise aspirations, by providing all young people in Opportunity Areas with at least four inspiring ‘encounters’ with the world of work, for example through work experience or mentoring,” according to the government news release.

While building collaboration between schools and the community is critical for the success of any program, the new focus on “life skills” over character education failed to recognize the essential role character education and moral formation play in preparing students for work and life.

Johann Neem, senior fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, argues that shift from a more liberal education to specific life skills for college and career readiness seemingly ignores the importance of instilling character virtues.

“Society needs philosophers . . . but not everyone must become one,” Neem wrote for The Hedgehog Review. “Instead, a liberal education would develop the skills, knowledge, and dispositions or virtues necessary to use philosophy’s insights to inform action in the world.

“Unlike the pure philosopher or sophist, the ideal orator ‘unites wisdom and eloquence,’ knowledge with skills and virtue,” he continued.

A character education framework can guide educators in public schools to intentionally integrate character into their classrooms, regardless of unsupportive policies.

“That remains a worthy aspiration for the graduates of our public schools, some of whom will become philosophers and scientists,” Neem said, “but all of whom are human beings and citizens.”