A question of character

What is character and how is it built? Ralph Scott reports back on The Character Conference with some answers and more questions.

In early December of last year, Demos hosted an all-day conference on character. We sought to get to the bottom of what is meant by character, and the role of policy in developing it.

The day brought together a diverse group from across parties and sectors: including academics, educationalists, youth workers, civil servants and representatives of the Army and the Church. This was no doubt partly driven by the cross-sector structure of the discussion, which included sessions on the education system, sport and arts, youth social action and volunteering, and the early years.

What we learned


1. Character has political momentum

Firstly, heading into the general election, character is picking up political momentum. Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, has made it one of his defining issues, as an aspect of educational inequality where he can see a Labour government making a real difference, as was clear from his keynote to the conference.

Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State, has also signalled her intentions to trial character-building programmes in schools, and reward those schools already doing a good job of building character. The Department for Education has newly formed a Character Education unit to specialise in the area, while the Cabinet Office has been working on the topic for some time, to evaluate the impact that social action and volunteering has on these skills.

Sam Gyimah MP, Minister for Education and Childcare, spoke on behalf of the Government and enthused on the topic. This came weeks after he announced a new scheme for tackling mental health issues in primary school children through the lens of resilience and character. This degree of cross-party support is encouraging and bodes well for character post-May 2015.

2. Character is a necessarily flexible concept, but is gaining definition

Character as a concept dates back to antiquity (famously, to Aristotle) and is baggy enough to accommodate many different definitions. That there are also many names for similar concepts – grit, resilience, soft skills and skills for the 21st Century – doesn’t help.

This can mean it faces as much resistance as motherhood and apple pie, often being interpreted as something the listener is already doing in their school or youth work. Equally it can lead to wilful misunderstanding or misrepresentation: such as character-building being solely the preserve of the Gordonstoun morning dip in a freezing lake, so loathed by Prince Charles.

So how should we understand ‘character’? Back in 2009, Demos published Building Character, which analysed the Millennium Cohort Study to view the impact of different parenting styles on three key character ‘capabilities’, drawn from Goodman’s Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ): application, the ability to stick to a task; self-regulation, the ability to delay gratification; and empathy.

The SDQ is a solid starting point, but it was clear from the conference that there is a great deal of work being done to nail down exactly what is meant by character, or at least how the Government can support its development.

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, our co-hosts for the conference, provide a widely-accepted and expansive definition of character across four subsets of virtues: intellectual virtues, such as curiosity or studiousness; performance virtues, like grit and ‘bouncebackability’; moral virtues, like honesty and empathy; and civic virtues, like serving others. They also highlight the importance of critical thinking to character, something that Margaret Kerry of the examinations board OCR mentioned is important in their work.

The Cabinet Office have drawn on this for their similar concept of ‘social and emotional skills’, while bringing in more of the so-called ‘soft skills’ and focusing more on the individual – a comprehensive Institute of Education literature review performed for them and the Education Endowment Foundation is a very useful overview. They prioritise the competences of resilience, self-direction, communication, and ability to forge relationships, and have a review ongoing in this area which should produce some very interesting results.

The role of the Government in providing a definition of character should not be underestimated: as they will have convening power and potentially the policy levers to properly ‘operationalise’ it, so that those working in schools or youth organisations know what they should be working towards.

3. The nature v nurture divide is a false one

One criticism of a focus on character is that it is often assumed to be fixed – why worry about something we can’t change? James O’Shaughnessy, former No 10 adviser and founder of Floreat Education, gave the lie to this argument in his contribution, suggesting that twin studies have shown that on average across a population only around 50 per cent of character traits are genetically heritable, with the other half being malleable whether in the home environment or outside, for example through what happens in schools.

In fact, drawing on the work of Prof James Heckman, he claimed that character traits are skill-like, in that they can be drawn out through instruction and practice – making a strong case for a policy focus on character. So, with character development, as with all things, it is a case of both nature and nurture: the fault lies not in our stars.

4. Schools already educate for character, but often not knowingly

This malleability of character skills links to another observation made during the course of the day: all schools and families already mould character – it’s just that some do it consciously and systematically, while others do it erratically, and perhaps badly. Prof Kristjan Kristjansson of the Jubilee Centre suggested as much while arguing that character is both ‘caught’ and ‘taught’. The Jubilee Centre have developed their own framework for schools to use to ensure they are developing character in a systematic and positive way through their practice.

This is perhaps due to what is measured being what really matters in education, particularly in a school system with high levels of external accountability. This phenomenon – a ‘target culture’ – has been addressed by Demos before but is particularly relevant to the character discussion, due to the risk that you miss precisely what you were looking to develop through a more rounded ‘character education’ once you start trying to measure it through gameable metrics. How you encourage schools to deliver a more rounded education with the current accountability structures in place, or what changes you might need to make, is a trickier question.

5. Anecdotal evidence on ‘what works’ abounds, but robust analysis is thinner on the ground

The day was packed with examples of schools, activities or programmes that people had attended or were responsible for which sounded as though they had really turned someone’s life around, through a character-style approach. The panel I chaired was particularly inspiring, with stories of sport participation really helping to bring people out of their shells, or teaching them self-discipline. But there was far fewer robustly-evidenced interventions – whether school-based or extra-curricular – that had been shown to develop character skills.

This is somewhat chicken and egg – how can you evaluate when you don’t yet have a common definition of what you’re looking for? Some have started by looking at outcomes, whether that’s prevention of crime or truancy, or successes like educational attainment or career outcomes. Work by the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) and the Cabinet Office is both providing a common definition and an evidence framework for evaluation: making this area one to watch.

There’s also the issue of schools’ workloads. We at Demos, through our Pupil Power project, are currently working with four schools across the UK to pilot an intervention that focuses on co-production and its potential for developing character. One thing that the project has taught us is the limited time and resources that schools have for participating in research.

What’s next?

At the end of the day there were a handful of outstanding questions.

1. Skills or virtues?

First, should we think of character in terms of skills or virtues? While the civic and moral virtues are clearly important is it helpful to think of them separately to the ‘skills’ of character: the ability to perform and the resilience to keep going against adversity? One can imagine the so-called skills being relatively uncontroversial, whereas education about morals and civic responsibility could be a bit trickier.

On the other hand, this could be as simple and uncontroversial as explaining that lying, selfishness and hitting others is bad when in primary school. And James O’Shaughnessy quotes Teddy Roosevelt in defence of moral education:

‘To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.’

2. What actually builds character?

There are also a number of questions about the evidence base and what that means for policy. As Leon Feinstein of the EIF put it, the first rule of social policy is ‘do no wrong’ – so how do we know that character interventions are going to have a positive effect, and not just be a waste of money, or worse, have a negative impact? One answer is to invest in the evidence base, which is fortunately happening through the What Works centres.

But there are plenty of subquestions that cropped up throughout the day as to what activities actually build character:

  • What teaching methods and modes of assessment are most effective at developing character?
  • What is the role of schools as institutions in building character? And what about other institutions such as the workplace or family?
  • What forms of extra-curricular activity are most character-building?
  • Which types of sport are most effective? For example, do team sports develop communication skills whereas individual sports are better at performative skills?
  • How do creativity and character interact?
  • Does the pressure of individual performance, and the freedom to fail in a safe space, build character?

There is a further question here that comes up when we start evaluating programmes, hinted at above: what are we measuring when we assess ‘character’?

Character itself is so subject to qualitative, lived experience it is perhaps not quantifiable – Leon Feinstein suggested we are therefore safest quantifying it through outcomes, whether positive or negative. And Danny Kruger, perhaps speaking on behalf of social entrepreneurs everywhere, argued that fixation on evidence can soak up resources and lead to the exclusion of everything else: how far do we expect schools and charities to demonstrate their impact?

3. The character gap

What does character mean for inequality? Something that was very clear from Tristram’s speech is that he sees the ‘character gap’ as a fundamental divide in British education, albeit one that we know much less well than the attainment gap through which we traditionally understand educational inequality (and which Ian Wybron at Demos has recently revealed to be widening still). This highlights the importance of finding a measure or proxy for character ability – to estimate the size of the gap as it stands, perhaps in order to target interventions to those sections of society that need it most.

However, this rests on an assumption that character skills are unequally distributed across society – perhaps a fair one based on the clear link between family income and educational attainment – but one that is yet to be clearly demonstrated. It was mentioned by more than one speaker that those at the top of society are as liable to faults of character as those at the bottom. Equally, the assumption that independent schools are better at developing these skills than the bulk of the state school sector should be subjected to more analysis.

Closing the character gap, such as it exists, relates to equality of opportunity: giving everyone a fair start in life. Baroness Tyler, citing her APPG’s Character and Resilience Manifesto, recommended making the Pupil Premium more targeted within schools to achieving these outcomes, including through interventions demonstrated to develop character skills, rather than schools being able to use it as they like. But is character the secret to success? This question of the relationship between character and social mobility requires more work.

4 Do we need more state or less?

Within the education system, it is relatively uncontroversial to reduce inequality though redistribution in favour of those from low-income backgrounds, with the Pupil Premium being the latest example. This could equally apply to character inequality, perhaps by dedicating more curriculum time to developing these skills, through a longer school day and bringing extra-curricular activities into that. But are we happy with the increased spending and lack of autonomy that this entails?

Even if we are, the question becomes more vexed when you start talking about parts of life where state involvement is more controversial, or less successful: such as that of parenting. The state is not a demonstrably better parent, and neither is it particularly successful at providing parenting advice and support to those who need it most. Yet we know that parenting, and the first 1,000 days particularly, are vital for a child’s development, with as much as 20 per cent of character traits being influenced by parenting and the home environment, as Family Links discussed in their contribution. In his speech, Tristram Hunt committed to bringing back Sure Start – which in its original iteration was remarkably successful, but struggled when scaled up by the state. In this way, Sure Start provides a case study of the dangers of top-down implementation.

It also raises the question of how much of this should be compulsory – if, for example, the National Citizen Service is clearly demonstrated to build character, should it be compulsory for all 16-year-olds? This plays into the paradox that those who would most benefit from a voluntary intervention are often those who are most likely to opt out: especially those who could do with developing their character skills of determination and tenacity. George Henry, a graduate of the Premier League’s Kicks programme, drew on his own story to make this point: that the way to appeal to the disengaged is through what interests them, in this case football. Make something state-mandated and you can kill the positive effect of a voluntary programme.

It also seems slightly counter-intuitive for the development of character to be dependent on the state when within the concept of character, there is an aspect of self-reliance. Danny Kruger made an interesting observation that the contemporary appeal of character, and the related subject of virtue, is part of a wider urge in public discourse to return to a politics of belonging and relationships, summed up in the now-dead rhetoric of the Big Society.

5. A life-cycle approach to character

Finally, there are questions which were excluded from the structure of the day, but still pertain to character development. Not least, what of character development in later life? The focus on the first 18 years of life is understandable both pragmatically and developmentally, but what happens after someone leaves the education system is a vital question. How does interaction with the ‘real world’, whether of a job, a university or unemployment, impact on your character development for good or ill? And how does character relate to rehabilitation for ex-offenders? Research by Heckman and Kautz has shown that character is malleable into later life, so this is not an idle question.

Equally, there is also the question of who is equipped to develop character – do they also need to be of good character? The evidence from mentoring programmes seems to suggest that role modelling is important to its success: but do teachers and parents feel up to the job? And if not, how should they be supported? All of this points to the conclusion that in terms of character development, we should adopt a life-cycle approach.