The Values and Virtues of Character Education

Last week, thanks to @SurrealAnarchy on Twitter, we read this article by Robin Alexander on “Character Education”.


It’s a thoughtful article that resonates with much of what 3Di has said over many years about the importance of personal and social development in schools throughout the country.

From a recent 3D Eye post on the subject…….

“We’ve been arguing for a very long time that schools should put equal emphasis on the personal, social and spiritual intelligences, as well as the intellect, and children should be enabled to become rounded, creative and resilient individuals who have a good understanding of the human condition, as well as high levels of emotional literacy. What we don’t want at this important juncture (when it appears everyone is either piling on to the ‘character education’ bandwagon or trying to push it off a cliff) is more central diktat and prescription as to the actual form and content of PSHE and SRE. Above all we don’t want Ofsted inspectors, who may or may not have good insights into these areas of learning, to be visiting schools with a brief to somehow measure the ‘delivery’ of these ‘subjects’ against prescribed ‘standards’.”

See a selection of our previous posts.

Robin Alexander says,

“In the same way that New Labour claimed, witheringly but inaccurately, that before the imposition of its national literacy and numeracy strategies England’s primary teachers were ‘professionally uninformed’, so Nicky Morgan’s happy discovery of something called ‘character’ implies that schools have hitherto ignored everything except children’s academic development; and that creativity, PSHE, moral education, religious education and citizenship, not to mention those values that loom large in school prospectuses, websites and assemblies and above all in teachers’ daily dealings with their pupils, were to do with something else entirely.”

Whilst we agree with this, we offer a cautionary note.

Good schools have always been mindful of the personal and social developmental needs of children. However, the corrosive effect of the high-stakes ‘standards agenda’ has meant that some schools have felt forced to concentrate on raising test scores instead of maintaining a focus on the individual personal development of children. Creativity isn’t a new discovery. Neither is PSHE Education or SMSC. However, when schools aren’t judged on these matters, they become less significant in an environment where the only judgement is on academic progress and test scores.

Robin Alexander

Robin Alexander’s other key concern is with the actual nature of this “Character Education” – and in many people’s minds its emphasis on ‘resilience’ and a stiff upper lip mentality.

“So what, in Morgan’s book, constitutes ‘character’? Its main ingredients, as listed in the guidance to applicants for the DfE grants and character awards, are ‘perseverance, resilience and grit, confidence and optimism, motivation, drive and ambition.’ Rather lower down the list come ‘neighbourliness’, ‘community spirit’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’ . . . Morgan said pupils should ‘leave school with the perseverance to strive to win … to revel in the achievement of victory but honour the principles of fair play, to win with grace and to learn the lessons of defeat with acceptance and humility.’

If character is important, which it surely is, is such an idiosyncratic and unreconstructedly male account of it good enough, and is it for government to impose this or any other notion of character on every child in the land, of whatever inclination, personality, gender or culture?

Robin Alexander cites two further articles that are well worth a read.

The first, from John White of the Institute of Education says,

“It is not wrong to highlight values and virtues. Far from it. It is where thinking should begin about what schools are for . . . Nicky Morgan is not wrong to focus on personal qualities, only about the set she advocates. This is tied to a competitive ideology of winners and losers. No politician has the right to steer a whole educational system in this or any other partisan direction.”

We agree, and it raises yet again concerns about political interference in education. The ideology of whichever political party is in power shouldn’t seep into the curriculum. This shouldn’t be the reason why we teach or learn anything.

The other article that Robin Alexander cites is from Jeffrey Snyder.

He says,

“There are three major problems with the new character education. The first is that we do not know how to teach character. The second is that character-based education is untethered from any conception of morality. And lastly, this mode of education drastically constricts the overall purpose of education.”

He continues

“The new character education unwittingly promotes an amoral and careerist “looking out for number one” point-of-view. Never before has character education been so completely untethered from morals, values, and ethics . . . Today’s ‘grit’ and ‘self-control’ are basically industry and temperance in the guise of psychological constructs rather than moral imperatives.”

What connects these three articles, together with posts that 3Di has written, is the fundamental importance of values and virtues in “Character Education”.


We’ve spoken and written for many years about the importance of virtues rather than values.

This is perfectly captured by Jeffrey Snyder when he offers a considered analogy.

“While it takes grit and self-control to be a successful heart surgeon, the same could be said about a suicide bomber. When your character education scheme fails to distinguish between doctors and terrorists, heroes and villains, it would appear to have a basic flaw.”

Robin Alexander says of Nicky Morgan’s view of “Character Education”

“These are unambiguously the values of England’s nineteenth century public schools: values directed not to the nurturing of mind but to physical prowess on the games field, an education veritably conceived as no more or less than a game of rugby or cricket.”

The answer?

We need a curriculum for life that values virtues.


Resilience is a value but it isn’t valuable if it is gained at the cost of one’s overall wellbeing or if it’s achieved to the detriment of others. It only becomes a virtue if it takes account of the personal and social needs of oneself and others.

Take the analogy above. Self-control is virtuous for a heart surgeon because his ability to maintain calm impacts positively on his work and on his patients. The self-control of a suicide bomber is a virtue that has far from virtuous effects.

Like Robin Alexander and John White, we welcome the discussion of and the emphasis on “Character Education”, but it needs to be considered carefully.

As Robin Alexander says,

“The imperative here is to tie perseverance, grit and resilience to socially defensible aims and values, for, as Snyder noted, that for which we teach children to strive must be educationally worthwhile.”

As 3Di says,

“Our world is open. We are global citizens and human beings and it’s the virtue of collective values that shape our society, not their Britishness.

We’ve got to stop this nonsense of defining values as belonging to one nation or another. They’re shared. We have to recognise the importance of both values and virtues.

And yes, we need to give our young people opportunities at home and at school to understand the virtues of a range of human values to which we can all aspire, adhere to and live accordingly in a peaceful manner of respect and responsibility to all.”


See also,

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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1 Response to The Values and Virtues of Character Education

  1. Pingback: Character Building…Our Shared Responsibility – Learning Voyage

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