‘Character Education’ needs to be Lived not Taught

18th February 2014

His piece reminded me of the following article I wrote in 2010 for “The Citizenship Magazine” in which, like Robert Peal, I argue that discrete provision is not the most effective way of teaching social skills. The article was originally focused on PSHE and published as “The PSHE Debate – A New Way of Thinking” and I have reposted it un-edited – so references to curricula are to those that were in effect in 2010.

“I recently reached the conclusion that a lot of what is contained in the PSHE curriculum simply isn’t suited to discrete PSHE lessons. While areas like sex and relationships education (SRE), drugs awareness and financial skills undoubtedly require dedicated teaching time, in my opinion, many other topics should instead be addressed across the curriculum and through the general ethos and culture of the school.

As a qualified secondary citizenship teacher, I have long argued for the importance of discrete citizenship provision. However, unlike most of the citizenship curriculum, skills like being able “to listen to other people, and play and work cooperatively” are not suited to such lessons. That’s not because listening to others isn’t one of the most important things a child can learn – it undoubtedly is. It is simply that discrete provision is not the most effective way of teaching it. But how do we decide which parts of the curriculum should be delivered discretely and which should be taught through a school’s overarching cultural principles?

Parts that need dedicated lessons are those that require children to learn how to skillfully evaluate information in order to make decisions. This applies to basics like crossing a road: children need to learn what steps to take when deciding whether to cross. We cannot simply teach this through positive relationships and a good school culture. Similarly, as children grow older, if they are to decide whether to take drugs, have sex or take out a loan, they need to understand a particular set of information, to have the skills to look at different options and the ability to evaluate risk. These elements of the curriculum should therefore be taught discretely by specially trained teachers as part of a statutory requirement.

In contrast, listening, playing and working co-operatively results from everything that goes on in school (and at home). So, every time someone speaks in class, teachers should ensure that pupils listen and respond positively in order to create the right culture so that it becomes a norm. Lessons should be planned with a mixture of individual and group activities so that pupils can learn to co-operate. It is by doing this that schools will nurture the type of pupils that the PSHE curriculum strives to create.

Interestingly, the national curriculum’s “values, aims and purposes” puts developmental priorities right at the heart of the curriculum. The curriculum only has two aims. One of them is “to promote pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and prepare all pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life”. The other is that the curriculum should develop pupils’ “self-esteem and emotional wellbeing and help them to form and maintain worthwhile and satisfying relationships.” I fail to understand why these aims need to be more or less restated in the PSHE curriculum. It merely lends to the popular criticism that PSHE is “everything that doesn’t fit anywhere else”. Ideally, these aspects should fit in every subject and every area of school life.

Worryingly, the motivation for drawing them out and putting them into one subject seems to be that they’re not being done well enough elsewhere. If this is the case then all that is being done is that another space is being created to do something badly. Furthermore, schools are setting themselves up for inconsistency. Think of it like this: sometimes a school’s ethos and culture already reflect and inspire desired ways of being. In such cases there is no need to teach them discretely. In others, the school’s ethos and culture conflicts with them. In these cases PSHE lessons teach values and beliefs that are not backed up by everyday common experience. This makes them meaningless and hypocritical.

Ultimately, pigeon-holing developmental and social priorities leaves the way open for dry, socially un-fulfilling teaching in other subjects and a school environment that forgets about wellbeing because, “after all it’s being done elsewhere”. Let’s instead focus our efforts on positive school cultures and on skilled, discrete and statutorily enforced provision of the aspects that really need discrete delivery.