A pertinent problem which stokes the endeavours of educationalists and policy-makers in the UK is the attainment gap. From increased government spending on schools, to outright bonkers legislation that outlaws inequality, so-called improvements to the education system are being tried and tried again. One of the many differences between high and low achievers believed to be attributable to the attainment gap is the soft skills they possess.
The idea that private school alumni have their edge not just because of their exam results, but as a result of the ‘character teaching’ that can be found in the best schools, is gaining popularity once more. Dr Anthony Seldon, ex-principal of Wellington College, and chair of Buckingham University, recently praised Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, for appreciating that schools can excel in both academic rigour and teaching character.
Research seems to show that the private school advantage is lessening — due perhaps to the egalitarian social policies of developed countries. But that has not stopped people in either camp debating the existence — and effects— of personality traits, which could be one of the keys to helping the poorest catch up with their more socially privileged counterparts. In particular, educators have stressed the importance of personality traits from the Big Five including: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness.
Many people argue that, even in countries like the UK, children’s potential is stifled by their growing up in a lower income bracket. The same case is made about personality; it is often said that poorer children do not have the chance to develop the same desirable personality traits as more well-off children, and so this is another reason a gap in attainment exists.
In a recent study, Can Personality Traits and Intelligence Compensate for Background Disadvantage? Predicting Status Attainment in Adulthood, that first came to my attention here, R. I. Damian, R. Su, M. Shanahan, U. Trautwein, and B. W. Roberts tried to answer the question about the impact of socioeconomic status on personality traits.
What it finds is that individual differences in children’s personalities predict academic achievement and success later on in life, regardless of their socioeconomic status. But the results go further, showing that greater returns from character can be reaped by badly-off children than by well-off children.
On the one hand it is good news that positive personality traits can undo some of the damage done by poor luck in socioeconomic status. On the other it would be a different claim all together to say that by character teaching, disadvantaged children can do better yet. This is exactly what Nicky Morgan has started funding this year, based on that exact assumption. The results of these character teaching trials, that include ‘Zippy’s Friends’ and ‘Positive Action’, are set to be reviewed in 2017, meanwhile the think-tank Demos has gone so far as to advise that character teaching should actually be inspected by Ofsted.
But what if the personality traits that are most important for academic achievement and later-life success are mostly inherited? And that trying to teach these things (even more) in schools is a waste of time? Toby Young certainly makes a good case for why we ought not to be fooled into believing we can affect personality via government intervention just because it would solve societal ills like the attainment gap if we could.
He mentions the very important point about opportunity cost: if the evidence is there that, overwhelmingly, personality traits are mostly genetic – or driven by environment before school, as James Heckman argues – then we are losing more than we gain by spending time and money teaching them instead of spending on what is beneficial in itself – such as knowledge.
The Education Secretary should u-turn from funding state-school-wide character teaching. While I am keen to see experimentation in schooling, and agree with Dr Anthony Seldon that those dominant across society also have a great grounding in the soft skills, I am opposed to the education budget being squandered on schemes that we know are not going to be very valuable for those they are seeking to help.