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Character Building

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The Scout Association logo

BBC Radio 4's Analysis: Character Building will be broadcast on Thursday, 10th July 2008 at 20:30 and repeated on Sunday 6th July at 21.30 BST

Lord Baden-Powell called the scout movement he founded a "character factory", designed to impart his own public school and military ethos to the masses.

It is an agenda that has traditionally made many on the liberal left of politics cringe.

"It's because of the unresolved class conflict of British society," says Matthew Taylor, a former strategy adviser to Tony Blair.

"There was a sense that there was a notion of character handed down from the kind of patrician class to the great unwashed. But the left in fighting class domination has been unable to find powerful collective messages that encourage people to be good citizens in the absence of the kind of top down messages of the past."

However, the idea of promoting good character is gaining popularity in the policy making circles of the centre left.

Richard Reeves
Richard Reeves is a writer and commentator on economics and the politics of wellbeing

"Issues of individual character were previously avoided by squarely placing the blame for criminality or cruelty on financial poverty," says presenter Richard Reeves.

But scientific research has undermined this theory.

"Financial poverty is a factor but not a terribly important one," according to Professor of Child Health and Behaviour at King's College London and the Institute of Psychiatry, Stephen Scott.

"It seems to be poverty of the parent-child experience and a lack of warm relationships that leads to poor child outcomes."

Genetic predisposition, he says, also plays a part.

If you have a rather twitchy, irritable, poor self-control temperament and you're brought up in a harsh way, it's bad news. For that group, the rate of criminality age seventeen is about 40%
Professor Stephen Scott

Furthermore, bad character has increasingly become a class issue.

Julia Margo of the Institute for Public Policy Research tells Richard Reeves that children born into deprivation in the 1970s were less likely to develop good character than their more affluent counterparts. Such a class divide was not apparent for those born in the late 1950s.

Uanu Seshmi of the Boyhood to Manhood Foundation in Peckham, South East London deals with some of the consequences of new social class-character divide. He works with adolescents who have been excluded from school. Many of the young people he deals with have been set a poor example by their parents.

"I've been in homes where the young boys have been badly beaten by their father badly. I've seen parents trying to knife their son and young girls who have been abused by their fathers."

Prof A C Grayling Reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London
Julia Margo associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research
Matthew Taylor head of the Royal Society of Arts and former strategy adviser to Tony Blair
Prof Stephen Scott Professor of Child Health and Behaviour at King's College London and the Institute of Psychiatry; Director of Research and Development at the National Academy of Parenting Practitioners
Peter Duncan Chief Scout
Uanu Seshmi Boyhood to Manhood Foundation
Prof Richard Thaler Professor of Economics, Graduate School of Business, University of Chicago, and author of Nudge

Whilst developing a good character may be more difficult for some than others, Uanu Seshmi still believes that we all have a duty to develop our own characters and to help others to do the same.

"What distinguishes us from animals is that we have the ability to choose. You can change your spots."

Presenter Richard Reeves is a writer, commentator and speaker. His latest book John Stuart Mill - Victorian Firebrand was published in 2007. He is also a part-time scout master in Buckinghamshire.

Producer: Innes Bowen
Editor: Hugh Levinson

In next week's programme:
There's a growing realisation that the crisis facing the global economy is unlike anything seen before. A combination of financial shocks and booming commodity prices have pushed us into uncharted territory. The simultaneous threats of inflation and recession are presenting dramatic challenges. But could the dynamism of the developing world pull rich countries out of the current slowdown? Martin Wolf of the Financial Times uses his unique access to key economic thinkers to ask if the world is really "decoupling".




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