Auditing your school's character education provision

Written by: Matt Bawden | Published:
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How can you audit your school’s character education provision? SecEd’s resident character education expert Matt Bawden offers some practical insights on auditing and measuring our implicit and explicit practice

“A 21st century education should prepare children for adult life by instilling the character traits and fundamental British values that will help them succeed.”
Educational Excellence Everywhere, Department for Education White Paper, March 2016.

Last month I completed my time with The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues as their teacher-in-residence. During my time with them I co-led their Teaching Character Through Subjects project and in this capacity was fortunate enough to visit more than 30 schools in six months.

I learned many things, the greatest being that we all “do” character education. In fact character education really does have an impact on “educational excellence everywhere”. When it is planned and purposeful character education can make any school great. Even when simply implicit and in-built it can still do this, but then how do we know? How do we know it is enabling not disabling? Organised not chaotic? Uniting not dysfunctional?

As teachers we tend to think of schools as being different in terms of in-take, geographical location, perhaps even their sense of history or whether they are part of an academy chain or under local authority control. However, one thing that is true wherever you go is that we never just educate for exams, we always educate for life.

In every school I visited, the first thing that hits you is not the A* to C rate, or whether all the students study languages, or carry on to a red-brick university. What hits you, often square in the eyes, is the ethos.

I visited one school where the students’ arrival in the morning was so full of joy I knew I would experience some excellent character development. At another school, the teachers and students shook hands as they arrived for class, and no-one seemed uncomfortable.

At yet another school, huge numbers could be seen at lunchtimes playing sports on the fields. Character development is everywhere. We must realise these examples are normal not unusual.

This can be the issue. If character is everywhere, and is to be glimpsed in the living ethos of the school, then how do we record it?

In 2015, I wrote an application for the Department for Education’s 2015 Character Awards. The word limits were tight but not a problem. What was a problem? The attachment of up to four documents to support our application. Character development is everywhere, character education happens both implicitly in the role-modelling and explicitly in the planned activities.

You can see it in the student who strives to succeed in maths, the student who stays at the end of school to prepare for exams, and the student who admits when he or she is naughty. But how do you write this down? How do you measure it? How do you even classify it? Then what do you include as your four documents, how do you boil it all down to something so concrete?

The Jubilee Centre defines character in terms of virtue and across four domains, which make sense to me. They include such qualities as determination and resilience in the performance virtues; curiosity and focus in the intellectual; neighbourliness and community spirit in the civic; and perhaps most importantly such qualities as honesty and respect in the moral domain.

As a senior teacher responsible for monitoring this area, I make substantial contributions to the analysis of personal development and belonging and these four domains are a great starting point for any analysis.

In more than a few schools, I have taken a board-marker and drawn two lines separating a box for each domain, and then looked to see where we see performance, intellectual, civic or moral domains in practice. It only takes a minute but will generate a lot.

If you haven’t thought of character development before most of what you write will be the implicit stuff. Examples include team sports, participation in debates and peer mentoring.

If you have been thinking about it then some of these will be more explicit. An obvious example is to be seen in the hours of pastoral time we have spent exploring the impact of merit and reward systems – but do we look at the impact in terms of improved behaviour (e.g. less disruption in lessons) or improved qualities (e.g. the students seem more focused)?

Taking the latter view is more holistic, more “characterful”, and will lend itself to making connections across a range of character-forming activities. The effect of rewards improving focus can then be linked to other activities such as the healthy meals programme or even the reduction in late arrivals to school.

Very quickly all four can be added to the intellectual domain box on your whiteboard and then linked to such things as resilience in the performance domain, or dignity in the moral.

Once you start adding to the boxes it can be hard to stop, but stop you must. At some stage all the phrases, key words and lines need assessing.

Giving them a score can be hard, after all measuring the impact of resilience on the sports field may be difficult, but measuring honesty or tolerance in a music lesson could be nearly impossible.

Yet there are both qualitative and quantitative ways around it. In fact many organisations now run courses to help teachers measure the ineffable. Sadly it is never that easy and many organisations make substantial sums from taking schools through the early stages of auditing – something easily done for ourselves – without really helping us see true long-term impact of character education.

There is effectively a difference between recording activities that may develop character and knowing how efficient they are. Qualitatively, student and parental voice can play a huge part. Quantitatively, they can offer scores to different activities they feel have an impact.

Admittedly neither is necessarily all that satisfying when we are so used to empirical data and the minutiae of government measures. But it is, as I said earlier, at the beginning. Indeed it is there on the faces of every single person in the school.

What is clear is our need to share our ideas, to build a community, and to offer clear, academically grounded ways forward. Auditing character education need not be difficult, or expensive. If we don’t have a clear idea of what we are looking for however, we cannot make sure it meets the needs of our students and our communities.

Gary Lewis, the chairman of the new Association for Character Education (ACE), makes this point clearly in his upcoming article for Character Matters, the association’s new member’s journal.

He writes: “Young people need to be equipped with a depth of character enabling them to distinguish between transitory pleasure and lasting happiness.”

Having a community such as the association will be a real boon for busy teachers and those working alongside schools to develop meaningful character education.

The first annual conference will take place on June 30 at the University of Birmingham School. There will be a great mix of talks and workshops. A ticket is free to each member of the association, and I feel sure there will be a lot of talk around just how schools are to “demonstrate a concerted focus on instilling these kinds of character traits throughout school life” (Educational Excellence Everywhere).

To return to the Character Awards, well the 2016 winners will also be announced at the ACE conference. Our school is not entering this year but I am really looking forward to seeing some of the great programmes and activities that are represented on the day.

  • Matt Bawden is associate lead for SMSC and character education at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne. He is the former teacher-in-residence at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and is the co-editor of Character Matters.

Character resources

  • To access SecEd’s best practice archive of character education articles, including Matt Bawden’s previous articles, visit http://bit.ly/1OvQtqv
  • You can download the resources from the Teaching Character Through Subjects project at http://bit.ly/1YsXqig
  • The existing Framework for Character Education in Schools is also available from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at http://bit.ly/1MrLgEj
  • The Association for Character Education: www.character-education.org.uk


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