Next steps for the National Citizen Service and priorities for Character Education in England: thoughts on meaning and value.

Next steps for the National Citizen Service and priorities for Character Education in England: thoughts on meaning and value.

I recently attended a seminar billed as: ‘Next steps for the National Citizen Service and priorities for Character Education in England’.  It was an interesting day; and here are my thoughts on it.

It’s useful to put the contemporary debate on character education in a historical context. The first thing to note is that character education has been around for a long (very long) time; indeed, this point was made by a contributor, Linda Sanders, of the Laurels School who referred to its origins in ancient Greece. The Laurels is a PACT school (Parents, Children and Teachers in Partnership) and subscribes to the PACT Charter of Educational Principles, which can be summed up by: “Qualifications are important but education is about so much more”: character education is central to their mission.

Despite character being an enduring theme in the philosophy of education, I wonder why character education is of such interest now, especially as in recent years the focus has been very much on its near neighbour, citizenship education? What happened to that?

Much depends on precisely how, and perhaps by whom, these concepts are understood – they are classic ‘floating concepts’. Contributor Matthew Bawden of the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Ashbourne spoke about his work discussing what these and related words mean with young people. (This could well be regarded as a philosophical education, where questions of meaning and value are central to all enquiry.) And a lot was indeed said about values. In particular, we heard the now regularly trumpeted phrase: “we need to measure what we value, rather than value what we [can] measure”, from Geoff Barton, of the Association of School and College Leaders.

It’s here we get to the heart of the matter: that there are broader philosophical (and no doubt political, and therefore democratic) questions about education per se that need dealing with, and urgently. I wonder however if the provocation for us to state ‘what education is for’ (Geoff Barton again) might actually delay us, given our seeming inability to think about education outside an instrumentalised ‘box’.

I remember Sheffield University’s Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Education, Wilf Carr once asking me: “why do we always ask what education is for, and never what education is?” This is fertile territory, and I suspect Wilf would have acknowledged the progress we made in our attempts to answer his question. Indeed, given the testimony of many at the conference, it seems reasonable to argue that education is implicitly about drawing out character, and particularly that related to good (and democratic) citizenship, perhaps even that it is implicitly philosophical too.

These concepts become to a large degree synonymous with one another; education is defined by character, citizenship, philosophy and democracy. This takes us to a point where if schooling was transformed in the terms argued for, we might be able to do away with the very concept of ‘character education’ in the first place (a point made by John Claughton), leaving us, simply, with ‘education’.

We are left then with the concept of iteration and the fact that education has been differently iterated by successive governments: it is extraordinarily politicised. What we have now is a neoliberal iteration (Jonny Zander referenced Tania de St. Croix in making this claim). I’d say this explains the shift from citizenship education (based on learning socially and morally responsible behaviour, community involvement and developing the knowledge, skills and attitudes to be effective in public life (see the Crick Report of 1998) to a similarly socially and relationally-oriented notion of character education (v.v. honesty, humility, empathy etc.). The more recent iteration is of character in terms of resilience, perseverance, self-control and even ‘grit’ – which are undoubtedly individuated concepts.

This is where I start getting agitated. An early contributor spoke of having been attacked by a ‘moped gang’ the previous day. Several of those who followed acclaimed her presence at the conference as a “wonderful example of resilience”, evidence she’d been able to put aside the distress of her experience so quickly and get herself up and going again.

Even though she’d explicitly described how several people came to her aid, no-one sought to mention this, there was no celebration of their empathy. The social analysis focused instead on the lack of empathy of her assailants. It troubles me that this focus on an individual’s ‘resilience’ seems to disallow any reference to trauma and make it more difficult for people to admit to struggling to cope. This narrative of ‘resilience’ feels all-pervading in school today. I fear there is something missing here.

As it happened, the previous day I’d been in discussion with youth workers involved in a community-based gang intervention project. In recent weeks, one young person has died in a drug incident, several others have been stabbed and a group of three young people had been convicted of a murder. In trying to help the youth workers deal with these horrors we talked about their concern about how the wider group of young people they worked with had reacted. The day after the death of a much-liked young man had seen an outpouring of grief and an impromptu vigil. But the next day, life appeared to have ‘gone back to normal’. This was attributed to an extraordinary level of desensitisation brought about by the day-to-day realities of lives lived in a context of fear, discrimination, poverty and hopelessness.

And yet here I was, a day later, at a seminar, and beginning to wonder if this was, in fact, a display of the very resilience so many seemed keen to see in our youth. Days on, even contemplating this makes me feel ill. When (and why?) did we allow ourselves to re-frame a lack of empathy – a kind of numbing to bad stuff – as ‘resilience’?

This brings me back to my theme of ‘meaning and value’ when it comes to character education. And it confirms my view that in whatever age we live and work in, this process of politicised iteration and re-iteration has a profound effect. The question is can we spot these effects, understand, and critique them?

This takes me to that other big theme of the day: youth work, and what that is. Arguably, youth work has been a victim of this process of iteration, and re-iteration, more than education. It seems reasonable to argue (and the heated discussion about governmental spending priorities at the seminar seemed to bear this out) that the NCS is the new iteration of youth work. This sits in contradiction with the commonly-held claim that the NCS is something different from, albeit complementary to, youth work. Witness the testimony of Lord Ashton of Hyde, in his role as the representative of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in response to questions about the need for youth services. His constant invocation of the NCS seems to suggest that youth work is now understood (iterated as) something structured, significantly prescribed, relatively free from the democratic credentials youth work has had for a long time.

Perhaps hope comes in the form of ‘constructive ambiguity’, lauded as the means by which a diverse range of positions can coalesce. See the hard-won recent initial agreement on Brexit: I’m instinctively drawn to this kind of politics, that is, with one important caveat: that there is a parallel agreement to invest time and energy in a dialogue about meaning and value. A lived commitment to the process of democracy is so often lost in a world increasingly obsessed by outcomes.

My own view is that youth work has spoken in the past, and needs to speak again, not just in terms of clarifying what it is but as an essential provocation to the wider debate about what education is more generally.