The school for scruples

Birmingham's new Centre for Character and Values will address 'practical ethics'. Matthew Reisz writes

June 21, 2012

A new centre has been set up at the University of Birmingham to put questions of "character" at the heart of national debates.

The establishment of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values follows five research reports led by James Arthur, who is now head of Birmingham's School of Education, that have explored character development from the ages of 3 to 24.

"We looked at how three-year-olds learned about the concept of justice and interacting with others," said Professor Arthur, who is also director of the new centre.

"We then moved on to primary schools, secondary schools and universities, where we found that students can identify the virtues but find them hard to discuss, because of a lack of moral vocabulary - though the minority from religious traditions found that enabled them to talk better about moral issues."

In order to build on this, a proposal to fund a new centre was submitted to the John Templeton Foundation, which has provided £6 million up front and is considering a grant of another £14 million.

There are plans to appoint a professor of character education, to create a national curriculum for character-building in schools and to explore the nature of "character" in different professions.

"We are interested in practical ethics," explained Professor Arthur, "how people are trained for compassion now and in the past.

"We want, for example, to produce a map of how doctors and nurses think about themselves in relation to patients - it has never been done before - and to come to clearer policy conclusions."

The Templeton Foundation, whose founder, according to the website, "wrote extensively on...the role that scientific research could play in expanding the spiritual horizons of humankind", has often been attacked for promoting an implicitly religious view of the world.

But Professor Arthur denied that the new centre was "a covert religious project", and also insisted that it was not skewed towards a conservative view of the world.

The Labour Party, he pointed out, "introduced academies and more traditional leadership roles for heads of schools".

Professor Arthur also said he had no time for the current policy of "treating schools just as exam factories, which implicitly says that nothing else matters".

"I want to keep the centre as objective and rational as possible, so the research doesn't get contaminated. It is not going to be prescriptive but aims to put on the intellectual table the whole question of character in education and the professions."

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