Blog: Character building - Back to the future? - Simon Lebus

Blog: Character building - Back to the future? - Simon Lebus

There is an interesting debate happening in the UK about the importance of character building in schools which reaches from the classroom all the way to the Education Secretary and her Opposition shadow. There are elements of 'back to the future' here as the characteristics being spoken about were, in the past, generally taken to be the by-products of a classic C19th British public school education. It is not surprising therefore that the headmaster of Gordonstoun, Simon Reid, insists it is evidence that “others are arriving at a solution we arrived at 80 years ago.”

Gordonstoun's philosophy was designed by a visionary but rather eccentric refugee of Nazi Germany, Kurt Hahn. He laid out the ‘Six Declines of Modern Youth’. Leaving aside the slightly old-fashioned wording, were we to reposition his list as a series of positive statements, we could draw many similarities with today’s concerns:

1. Decline of Fitness due to modern methods of locomotion [moving about];
2. Decline of Initiative and Enterprise due to the widespread disease of spectatoritis;
3. Decline of Memory and Imagination due to the confused restlessness of modern life;
4. Decline of Skill and Care due to the weakened tradition of craftsmanship;
5. Decline of Self-discipline due to the ever-present availability of stimulants and tranquilizers;
6. Decline of Compassion due to the unseemly haste with which modern life is conducted or as William Temple called "spiritual death".


In this context, childhood obesity remains a hot topic with various initiatives running in this country to encourage schools to deliver better sport programmes to encourage children into the habit of physical activity. And Hahn’s fears for ‘the weakened tradition of craftsmanship’ have been echoed in recent news following an open letter published by The Times backed by over 100s signatories calling for craft and making to be put at the heart of the curriculum. Hahn also foresaw the dependence in today’s economy on entrepreneurs, warning that ‘spectatoritis’ was a spreading disease. His concern that young people lacked self-discipline due to ‘the ever-present availability of stimulants’ – is a sentiment echoed today, though the ‘stimulants’ have recently become digitised.

Some remain adamant that character cannot be taught. Toby Young (founder of the West London Free School) insisted in an article for The Spectator that “character traits are inherited, not taught.” Although I suspect that the parents queuing to get their children into Young's school believe that part of the part of the offer is the provision of a character building experience. It is clear from our research that high self motivation (resilience/grit) and low impulsivity (self-discipline/control) are significantly related to attainment at 16+ exams (GCSE). If these characteristics can be strengthened through school-based activities, and there are already both public and state schools that do this well, then it will be possible to raise both attainment and the educational aspirations of our young people.

That said, Gordonstoun’s most infamous alumni, Prince Charles, didn't think much of his time there, branding his experience at the school as being like “Colditz with kilts”?...

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment


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