A test of character

Sir Peter Lampl on why today’s new EEF trials of character education could help improve vital social skills for disadvantaged young people.

The debate on school standards too often comes up against a false dichotomy. We can either teach knowledge or skills, we are told. Yet powerful new Harvard research suggests that picking one without the other may be doing a disservice to our pupils. They need what are sometimes derogatively described as soft skills as well as a good grounding in traditional subjects.

That’s why the Education Endowment Foundation, the Sutton Trust’s sister charity that I also chair, has launched a new round of trials today designed to enhance those skills particularly in disadvantaged pupils.

Today’s six new trials, part of an initiative supported by education secretary Nicky Morgan to improve character teaching in schools, include Positive Action, a primary school programme that helps promote positive attitudes, such as good time management and self-control, and Zippy’s Friends, which helps children cope under pressure at school. The trials will help us to establish whether such programmes can make a measurable difference.

Aside from their exam results, there are two reasons why independent school alumni are disproportionately represented at the top of the professions . Alongside their strong networking, the best private schools encourage their students to be better communicators, to work in teams, get along with people and be more creative, which often means that they succeed ahead of better qualified counterparts from state schools.

Creating resilience in young people helps them deal with setbacks, something the least advantaged may experience to a greater extent than others, regardless of ability, and learning to think and develop arguments can provide them with the essential skills they will need to do independent research at university and to progress in an increasingly creative world of work.

Critics of teaching these skills say that it will come at the expense of young people acquiring knowledge. 

Toby Young put this view robustly in a recent Spectator column: “As with so many educational fads, the problem is the opportunity cost — the time you’re wasting on gobbledegook that could be devoted to teaching children genuinely useful things.”

That’s a fair point. But set against it we have the new Harvard study by David J Deming, an associate professor in their graduate school of education, which shows how the labour market increasingly rewards social skills. He wrote in his National Bureau of Economic Research paper: “Since 1980, jobs with high social skill requirements have experienced greater relative growth throughout the wage distribution. Moreover, employment and wage growth has been strongest in jobs that require high

levels of both cognitive skill and social skill.” His modelling demonstrates a positive return to social skills even allowing for cognitive and other skills traditionally associated with higher wages.

Deming shows that in an increasingly computerised age, “jobs that require high levels of analytical and mathematical reasoning but low levels of social interaction have fared especially poorly.” He argues that “computers are still very poor at simulating human interaction.”

The challenge is to translate an understanding of the importance of young people having those social skills into the school curriculum in a way that genuinely adds value. In her speech at the Wellington Festival of Education, Nicky Morgan rightly said that “if we lose sight of the fundamental knowledge and skills that form the heart of a rigorous curriculum, the people that lose out are the most disadvantaged.“ Both matter, but it can be easier simply to focus on academic rigour in ways that don’t necessarily improve social or soft skills.

That’s why today’s new EEF trials are so important. Since its inception four years ago, the vast majority of EEF trials have focused on improving the teaching of core subjects, particularly English and Maths, and have used the toughest statistical standard of the randomised control trial to show which methods genuinely add value.

The EEF will be applying similar rigour to the teaching of character. Where programmes are really making a difference both to the academic and social skills of young people, these trials will show the extent that they do so. But where they do not, they will report those findings openly to. It is vital we get this right if all our young people are to have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

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