How do we prevent 'character education' from becoming a faddy bandwagon that rolls on by?

As politicians and pundits embrace the latest fad – teaching 'character' to children – pioneer Hilary Wilce applauds the principle but wonders how schools can best foster happy, confident pupils with strategies that will last beyond the next big initiative
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Educational bandwagons come and go, and normally it doesn't matter a jot.

"Bye, bye coursework," you think, as some education minister or other rants out his latest vision for driving up standards. "Never mind. You'll be back." Or, "Hello phonics. Enjoy your moment, because whole-language teaching will soon be pushing in again."

But now there's a bandwagon that's coming and going so fast that no one's even had time to digest it. And, for once, it's one that really, really matters.

A couple of years ago, worried by what I was seeing when I visited classrooms, I began to think about what character strengths children needed to see them through school and life. Far too many children and young people, it seemed to me, were growing up without the kind of inner core and compass they needed to live and learn well. I started to read up on the research in this area, but it was patchy and disparate. Some academics had worked on the importance of optimism and resilience. Others had developed the ideas of bringing a "growth mindset" to learning. Still others were paddling around in the rapidly spreading waters of Eastern meditation, shaping ideas for bringing daily quietness and gratitude into the classroom. Meanwhile, a few forward-thinking heads were starting to introduce innovative programmes of building mental strength, and some teachers were trying to teach their pupils the secrets of a happy life. It was all a bit of a mess, but deep within the mess were a lot of really important, life-changing ideas.

I read deeply, thought hard, and wrote a couple of short e-books that I believed would help parents consider how they could best foster their children's inner strength and resourcefulness. Which they did. These books were read around the world and prompted lots of gratifying emails from people who had read them and found them useful.

At the same time – almost overnight it sometimes seemed – schools in general were starting to think about character development. Much of this rapid enthusiasm had spread from the US, where a book on teaching character had shot to the top of the bestseller lists and where the high-achieving KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools, which work in socially disadvantaged areas, had come to see that good grades alone were not bringing their students lasting success. Young people, they had concluded, needed grit and perseverance as well.

Ah… grit. Suddenly this catchy little word was everywhere. Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, was for it. Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, agreed. Businesses loved the idea of it, parents thought schools should give their children more of it, and there were moves to bring the Army into schools to show children exactly how it was done.

All over the place, now, character was the name of the game. Schools that had been teaching citizenship converted their efforts into programmes of character building. Former behaviour management experts were offering new workshops on how teachers could grow their students' inner strength. Mindfulness training was spreading into classrooms, and the Department for Education announced a new award for character education. But was this really going to benefit children?

My misgivings grew as I realised that ideas about character education were being regurgitated before they had even been digested. People jumping on to the bandwagon were grabbing for the easiest words possible to describe what it meant, without thinking twice about their implications. Obviously, they trumpeted, kids needed more resilience. More tenacity. More perseverance. More self-discipline. More self-control. More… grit.

Cue, of course, the inevitable backlash. With character education starting to sound like something minor public schools had tried to whip into their pupils back in the days when young men went off to serve the Empire, objectors were quick to point out that the whole character thing seemed like some right-wing conspiracy designed to produce buttoned-down, conformist, unimaginative adults. Or possibly selfish, competitive, striving entrepreneurs.

And then a whole tide of voices began to rise from the educational journals and blogs complaining that character education peddles the Victorian view that children are intrinsically wilful and bad. That it tries to whitewash out the effects of poverty and disadvantage on young people. That "blaming the kids" is a great way of taking the spotlight off bad teaching. And that it ignores the confidence-boosting quality of acquiring skills – the traditional aim of schools and teachers – in fostering optimism, strength and success. Also, the critics say, if you plan to teach kids virtues, whose virtues are you actually promoting? Is "co-operation" invariably good? If Germany had had character education at the time of the Second World War, would it have encouraged children to fight Nazism or to support it? Is "honesty" always the best policy? And what about "perseverance"? Isn't it sometimes just plain dumb to stick at pointless or unfruitful tasks?

The questions around character and virtues are endless, and they are all valid, but there may be no time to explore them fully. Because the way things are starting to look, character education will come and go before we even have time to think about how to do it thoughtfully and well. And with it will go any coherent chance for schools to help children discover the huge power and importance of developing their own inner strength and values.

So, for the record, here are some key questions I believe we urgently need to ask ourselves, if we are to prevent character education from becoming another faddy educational bandwagon that rolls on by. We need to take the time to think deeply about them, and we need to recognise that there may well be many good answers to each of them, not just one.

Even more important than that, I believe, is the need to recognise that character education, done properly, will never be nailed through workshops, class modules and programmes of study. Instead, we need to recognise that everything we adults think and do and say around children contributes to the way they view the world, themselves, and their place in it. And learn to handle ourselves with care and wisdom so that we are constantly aiming to help children develop their own strength and compass. Character education then stops being a fashionable educational add-on shaped from instant fads and shallow clichés, and becomes a practical and fundamental way of helping children grow the strength and integrity they need to live their lives well and happily.

Character education: five important questions

1. Can we actually teach it at all? And if we think we can, do we know how to teach it effectively? Will lessons and modules ever be of any use on their own? And, if not, what else do we adults need to do to help children discover and grow their inner strength?

2. What are we helping children develop their character for? To get a good job? To become a good citizen? To build good relationships? To stay out of trouble? To be successful? Or to live their lives feeling whole,  authentic and fulfilled?

3. What's the fundamental wellspring of character? My answer is that it springs from love and respect for yourself, for others, and for the world around you. Your answer might be different. But it's important to ask the question, since it matters whether we believe teaching a bunch of individual characteristics such as "grit" and "self-control" can add up to well-rounded and deep-rooted character development. Or not.

4. But character is always described by listing individual qualities. So what qualities will most help children live their lives well and happily? Should confidence be in there? Should honesty? Courage? Empathy? Should love? Should fairness? Lists of character qualities run into the hundreds. Which matter most?

5. Can schools ever go it alone when it comes to fostering character strength? Can parents? Can our wider society? And if not, how do schools, parents and society work together on this, to support each other towards a common goal?

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