THE RE-EMERGENCE OF CHARACTER EDUCATION IN BRITISH EDUCATION POLICY
Character education is a specific approach to morals or values education, which is consistently linked with citizenship education. But how is it possible for a heterogeneous society that disagrees about basic values to reach a consensus on what constitutes character education? This article explores how character education has returned to the agenda of British education policy, having been largely neglected since the 1960s in response to unsatisfactory attempts at character education going back to the nineteenth century. Between 1979 and 1997 Conservative governments attempted to reverse a perceived decline in moral standards, established State control of the schools curriculum, imposed on State schools the duty to provide for moral and other development, and established a National Forum which attempted to articulate a set of consensus values in education. Labour has extended these developments in the curriculum, introduced compulsory citizenship education, and its White Paper of September 2001 speaks of ‘education with character’. The character and virtues Labour seeks to promote through schools are pragmatic and instrumental in intention, linked to raising pupil school performance, meeting the needs of the new economy, and promoting democratic participation. Otherwise the vision is pluralistic and evades explicit directives, and there is no explanation or analysis of its theoretical basis.
The question of how agreement can be reached on what counts as character education may benefit from Sunstein's analysis of how law is possible in a heterogeneous society –‘incompletely theorized agreements on particular cases’ allow for common laws without agreement on fundamental principles. Many schools in fact operate in this way, but such a consensus is not entirely stable and runs the danger of teaching character education as a series of behaviour outcomes taught in a behaviourist fashion.