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Coffee House

Schools can teach good character and the 3 Rs

22 January 2013

4:44 PM

22 January 2013

4:44 PM

Education debates are riddled with false choices, as Michael Barber notes in his recently published essay Oceans of Innovation. It’s academic or vocational; it’s best practice or innovation; it’s the three Rs or character development. These are the choices, we are told, that must be made.

It plays well for those in pursuit of the politics of dividing lines but it is detrimental in policy terms. I want to see rigorous academic and vocational routes for young people in 14- 19 education. That is why Labour will bring forward a Technical Baccalaureate, with a strong focus on technical education and with Maths and English to 18 for all. If we are to succeed as a nation, we need to equip young people with the skills, knowledge and resilience for the jobs of the future.

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Tomorrow, Anthony Seldon – Master of Wellington College – will deliver a speech on the importance of character in education. By character, he means education that builds young people as active citizens; who want to play their part in society. Character means resilience, courage, leadership and developing in young people the capacities to make decisions. These are the attributes that our young people need, if we are to get ahead in the world.

Shortly after the Olympics, I met Ben Cox from London Youth Rowing. As a teacher Ben has taught in independent and state schools. With LYR he is championing a programme to get more young people from state schools in disadvantaged communities into rowing. It requires long hours and discipline. In engaging young people in this way, LYR is educating young people not just how to row in a regatta, but how to be leaders and take control over their own lives. Young people today, he told me, are constantly incentivised in pursuit of ‘instant gratification’, driven by media portrayals about what it means to be successful. Schools have an important job to do in instilling in young people the character traits for long term success.

There are schools – across both the state and independent sectors – leading the way. Using the flexibilities that they have over the curriculum to be innovative in providing character education, schools like Paddington Academy in north London (serving a high proportion of children from low income backgrounds) are getting their pupils ready for the challenges and opportunities of an uncertain world. In Paddington, their enterprise programme allows pupils the experience of running a start up business. A strong focus on Maths and English (with excellent and improving GCSE exam results) and a strong focus on developing rounded and grounded young people. That’s the rigour of the future that we need to see in our schools.

We should reject the false choice presented by Michael Gove who says that it’s the  three Rs or character development in schools. The evidence from schools like Paddington shows that a strong focus on character development pays dividends when exam results come in and sets young people up for success in later life.

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