Adventure Time! Saving the young – through ‘character-training’

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In his latest contribution, Bernard Davies gives his take on the recent announcement of funding for an Adventure Learning Trial that has been discussed in the IDYW Facebook group page.


The Education Endowment Foundation – set up in 2011 with a Department for Education ‘founding grant’ of £125 million – announced earlier this month that it was to fund an ‘Adventure Learning Trial’. Involving 2,300 13 and 14 year olds, this, according to Children and Young People Now, will ‘test how a military-based character education programme improves behaviour and attainment at school’.

This is only the latest tranche of government money committed to young people’s ‘character development’ in a near-decade in which Youth Services across the country have been shredded or closed down. Most of this damage has been the direct result of a nearly 50 per cent Treasury cut in the Revenue Support Grant for local authorities which, in just the three years since 2015-16, has fallen from £9,927 million to £2,284 million.

Even as these and other ruthless ‘austerity’ measures were being imposed, in 2014 the government still managed to find £3.5 million – increased to £6 million the following year – specifically for ‘character education’ in schools.  As part of Teresa May’s promise of ‘building a country that works for all’, two years later it also launched an £80 million Youth Investment Fund, one of whose declared aims was ‘…to build (young people’s) character and help them succeed in the future’. Using both government and Big Lottery money, the Fund was opened to bids from local voluntary youth groups.

By then a ‘Character Awards’ scheme had been introduced to ‘celebrate excellence and diversity in this field’. This ‘recognis(ed) that character is already being encouraged, nurtured and developed alongside academic rigour through a variety of programmes in and outside schools …’ It was confident, too, that ‘character education can be found within a school’s ethos, in the classroom and on the playground, as much as it can be found on the sports field and outside of school in the local community.’

‘Character building’ has of course been high priority territory for youth organisations from their earliest days, particularly (and of course not insignificantly) for those working with boys. Charles Russell and Lilian Rigby, for example, writing about boys’ clubs in 1908, talked of ‘the gain to health and character of the few days spent in disciplined happiness at the seaside’ while nearly 40 years later their successor as a leading guru of boys’ club work, Basil Henriques, was explicit that ‘It is character rather than manners, speech, or even knowledge which really counts’.

It is hardy surprising, therefore, that as post-2010 governments began to offer money for programmes focused on character training, the successors of these early youth organisations responded positively and often pro-actively. In 2016, for example, UK Youth (formerly the National Association of Youth Clubs) took part in an ‘expert seminar’ on ‘character’ partly sponsored by the Home Office. Around this time, too, Ambition (formerly the National Association of Boys Clubs and soon to be merged into UK Youth) joined a ‘character research workshop’ jointly developed with the Home Office whose starting premise was ‘that certain character traits are strongly linked with offending, for example impulsivity (lack of self-control) and lack of empathy’. In the five years since 2012-13, developing ‘character’ has also been one of the rationales for the government channelling at least £70 million of public money into uniformed youth organisations.

Clearly crucial to these initiatives is how the notion of ‘character’ is being understood and applied. For the Character Awards’ scheme it was seen as important because

… all young people deserve opportunities to learn how to persevere and work to achieve; how to understand the importance of respect and how to show it to others; how to bounce back if faced with failure; (and) how to collaborate and build strong relationships with others at work and in their private lives.

A 2017 research report for the DfE on Developing Character Skills in Schools similarly emphasised

the role that certain … traits or attributes such as resilience, self-regulation, and emotional and social skills can play in enabling children and young people to achieve positive health, education, employment and other outcomes.

In insisting that ‘character education prepares our young people for life in Britain, regardless of their background or where they grew up’, Nicky Morgan, in order apparently to dismiss them as irrelevant, pointed to factors beyond the individual which often limit their up-by-their-bootstraps efforts to progress. At a time of, for so many of young people, extremely precarious everyday lives, advocates of character training are thus usually similarly careful not to mention the 4.5 million children who, a recent study revealed, are living below the breadline, trapping more than half of them in poverty for years. Or the evidence from Warwick University’s Institute of Employment Research that ‘young people are the most susceptible to the fragmentation of jobs that zero-hours working reflects’. Or the finding of Homeless Link published last April that more than a quarter of young people accessing homelessness services in the previous twelve months had been aged 16 or 17. Or figures from Ministry of Justice showing that, though only 13 per cent of the population overall belonged to a black, Asian, mixed or another ethnic group, the proportion of BAME under-18 year olds then in custody was over 48 per cent.

Underpinning these gaps, too, are questions of the language used to convince young people that what they are being offered is worth their attention, never mind their participation. Nearly sixty years ago the Albemarle Committee, appointed by the government to review the Youth Service in England and Wales, managed in its own rather formal language to tell it how it was then – and is still surely today:

We have been struck by the great number of occasions, in the evidence presented to us, on which words such as the following have been used as though they were a commonly accepted and valid currency: ‘service’, ‘dedication’, ‘leadership’, ‘character-building’. Again, we do not wish to be misunderstood… But we are sure these particular words now connect little with the realities of life as most young people see them: they do not seem to ‘speak to their condition’. They recall the hierarchies, the less interesting moments of school speechdays and other occasions of moral exhortation… (Young people’s) failure to attend youth clubs may be less often a sign of apathy than of the failure of their seniors properly to adjust their forms of language. (Emphasis in the original).

Any lessons there for us today, I wonder.

Bernard Davies’s book Austerity, Youth Policies and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in early 2019.

 

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