Character is core to the curriculum

We need different kinds and sizes of schools trying out different approaches

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The Independent Online

What would you say if you were an employer and a job applicant presented you with grades in grit, zest, optimism, social intelligence, gratitude, curiosity and self-control? Building character is central to Bedford Academy, a secondary school on which we report today. The "magnificent seven" attributes that the school wants to promote are not substitutes for core academic subjects, but a way of recognising that many of the qualities that make for success and fulfilment in life are not measured by them.

We wish the school well, just as this newspaper has welcomed the chance for academies and free schools to depart in different ways from the 2,000-pupil "exam factories" that dominate the English schools system. Last September, we welcomed the opening of new free schools including an English-German bilingual primary school; a secondary school dedicated to autistic children; a technical school linked to the motor-racing industry at Silverstone; and a school specialising in the creative arts associated with Elstree film studios.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has made many mistakes – some of them listed by Katy Guest in her column today. He has presented a refocusing on a rigorous basic curriculum of English, maths and sciences as if it were a return to a (mythical) golden age of O-levels. He has undermined teacher morale by appearing to regard the profession as the enemy of excellence. And he seems careless of the problems of accountability – for public money among other things – created by school autonomy. But the one feature of his drive for free schools, and his turbocharging of the academies programme that he inherited from Labour, which The Independent on Sunday supports enthusiastically, is his promotion of diversity.

One of the most important things that the English schools system needs is different kinds of schools, and different sizes of schools, trying out different approaches to education. That way parents have a better chance of finding the kind of school that is most likely to enable their child to realise his or her potential.

Naturally, there is a danger with the approach taken by schools such as Bedford Academy that formally recognising "character" might be seen as a sop trying to make up for deficiencies in the so-called hard academic subjects. But James O'Shaughnessy, a former education adviser to the Prime Minister, points to a similar scheme in the United States, the Knowledge Is Power Programme: "There is nothing woolly about the education delivered in these schools," he says. "It is rigorous schooling informed by hard-won experience about what young people really need to get on in life."

What is more, if it is done well, the Bedford Academy scheme could be just the kind of thing that is needed to overcome what Mr Gove recently described, in the sort of cliché that would embarrass a sixth-form English essay, as the Berlin Wall dividing state and private schooling. One of the advantages that private schools have been good at imparting to their pupils could be summed up as "character": self-confidence, public speaking, social skills.

But if such approaches are pursued with rigour in state schools they will build up their own reputation, earn the respect of employers and provide a broad education for as many pupils as possible.