Character counts in shaping lives for the better – so what can or should public services do about this?
Character matters. That is the blunt message revealed by James Heckman’s work. The ability to be open to new ideas and to meeting new people, the willingness to express yourself, the degree of conscientiousness with which you tackle problems and your ability to get on with others are vital to life chances.
Those characteristics make a very real difference to your life chances – in some cases far more than IQ. By moving from the group that is worst at ‘soft skills’ (i.e. openness, conscientiousness and agreeableness etc) to the group that is the next worst, the chances of a US male going to jail by the age of 30 fall by three-quarters. That is far greater than the effect of a similar improvement in cognitive skills (which reduce the risk by only a third).
It is, therefore, fortunate that something can be done about those ‘soft skills’. Programmes such as the Perry pre-school programme (that gave high-quality education to children of low-income families), highlight an improvement in self-control and reduced aggression that is sustained for many years later – achieving the kind of results that can make a huge difference to anti-social behaviour later on.
So what should public services do, if one takes seriously the analysis of this Nobel Laureate?
One starting point is rethinking school. Schools can make a major difference to soft skills – as long as they change their focus. So many pupils don’t get their knowledge of how to do better from books. They get planning skills, commitment, enthusiasm from trying out practical projects such as running a student business, or becoming an apprentice in a place that really cares about their development.
A chalk and talk education system is a very long way from meeting these needs. So too is an approach that wants to tie down the precise mechanics of what teachers should be teaching, and asks for a detailed overview of progress on indicators. Instead, the Young Foundation has highlighted a range of important alternatives – from the Fastlaners course for unemployed graduates which seeks to inculcate soft skills, through to the pilot Studio Schools, which undertake a more practical oriented agenda for pupils.
But a recognition that soft skills need support – just as much as cognitive skills – should go more widely than schools. For example, training programmes for the long-term young adult unemployed should do more to promote resilience and self-confidence, while much more could be done to promote proven techniques such as restorative justice, highlighting to young offenders the distress to their victims. A broad shift to promoting the development of soft skills can make a difference, and is vital, if a tide of rising inequality in life chances is to be addressed.