Character Education: Engaging the three key groups

Written by: Matt Bawden | Published:
Image: iStock

Continuing his series on character education, expert Matt Bawden reports from the Character Matters event and discusses how to grow support with three crucial groups – students, parents and the wider community

“Character is important – a CV may get you the interview, but character will get you the job #CharacterMatters2016.”
Tweet from British astronaut Tim Peake, January 21, 2016

Character matters. In fact character education matters. On Thursday, January 21, we had this roundly confirmed. I was fortunate to be in the audience at the Floreat School in Earlsfield, London, when both education secretary Nicky Morgan and children and families minister Edward Timpson assured us of this.

The event was branded Character Matters 2016, and much can be found on Twitter by searching via the hashtag above. It was quite a day with a variety of interesting speakers, and some excellent comments from “the floor”.

We heard from a young ambassador, an Olympian, the executive principal of Floreat Education, and then Ms Morgan. In the afternoon, we heard about the need to expand the evidence base for character development and took part in break-out groups exploring such things as the role of the voluntary and community sector, skills for the 21st century, and building a school ethos around character. Mr Timpson, who later closed the event, chaired this latter session.

Ms Morgan began by echoing the prime minister’s words from his recent speech on life chances, where he’d called for us to give “every child the chance to dream big dreams, and the tools – the character, the knowledge and the confidence – that will let their potential shine brightly”.

She went on to speak about what she means by character: “For me character traits are those qualities that enhance us as people: persistence, the ability to work with others, to show humility in the joy of success and resilience in the face of failure.

“Character is about being self-aware, playing an active role within communities. It’s about selflessness and self-discipline as well as playing a full role in society. It’s fair to say that’s a long list of traits.”

Clearly we, at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues agree with her. Our research has shown such qualities can be pinned down to one of four domains: intellectual, moral, civic, and performance (as discussed in previous articles in this series).

Much more detail can also be found on our website, in academic papers, research, and ready-to-use materials. The Department for Education-funded Teaching Character Through the Curriculum project is our latest example of providing character development materials for use across the curriculum and outcomes from this will be available later this spring.

Ms Morgan explained the role business and the charity and voluntary sector must play in enabling schools to develop the “combination of the traits that set people apart so they can achieve their dreams”.

She knows that character development is not easy and that all stakeholders need to work together. When all stakeholders pull in the same direction then each school will have their own model of delivery, suited to their community, and their needs.

While Ms Morgan explained that schools must have the flexibility to implement character education in the manner most relevant to them, she also insisted that “the best schools embed character in everything they do – from their ethos, to their curriculum, to the extra-curricular activities they offer”.

When we are considering growing wider support this really is essential. Within the Teaching Character Through the Curriculum project we have been well aware of the importance of this breadth and depth.

Over the course of the day we heard from several great schools and providers, often speaking in response to presentations by the panel.

Ms Morgan told us the Character Awards were held up as the gold standard, and I would agree. Yet it is also clear that so many more schools are now delivering to this high quality.

Normally in these articles, I like to use examples to show how schools approach whatever the theme might be. However, this time there were so many represented on the day, and so many more I have had the pleasure of visiting or hearing from recently that I will try to avoid specifics.

Mr Timpson spoke eloquently in summing up the discussions of the “ethos” break-out group. He spoke clearly and simply on the need for clarity and demystification. Character education can seem very complex, rather “new”, and even indoctrinatory to those with only a passing understanding. There are even those who seek to lump soft skills and mental wellbeing into the field. When we are clear what we mean, others can see things more clearly too. It can be easy to feel things are obvious when we live and breath character education, but taking a minute to see how others might view things can save a lot of time and really increase buy-in.

Some of the best schools and institutions have really used their students and other stakeholders well in both the development and publicising of their programmes. Often there are leaders in both the student body and the leadership team. These develop the character education programme and liaise with a named governor.

The school’s ethos can then be more clearly dissected from these three vantage points and reconstructed to reflect the school and wider community. Then once developed there are a range of advocates who can explain things to others without the need for unnecessarily complicated language.

In addition to having these core leadership points many of the more successful bring in business, voluntary and community sectors to assist with developing an ethos that is sustainable and reflective of the school.

The event in London really showed the breadth and depth of both national and local providers keen to become involved with schools. There are so many out there. Sourcing a mix of partners can really bring the ethos alive. Partners can bring fresh ideas, highlight great practice to others, and draw their own benefits.

One business provider pointed out how strong links with great students can mean the difference for the future of her company, as it will be these students who they hope will one day be waiting for interviews in her lobby.

However, assuming the leadership points are in place and others are brought on board, there will still be problems to face.

The acid test will be the parent and student reaction, but if the main thing has been to work collaboratively your character programme ought to be strong. Student leaders will know the sort of key character qualities they need to invest in. The leadership team will contain the strategic staff to identify where best in the school such qualities can be promoted, and the named governor can make sure everything is followed through in an accountable fashion.

But before the wheels are set in motion, parents really ought to be consulted. Perhaps the central question is: “Does this ethos match what you believe our school should be about?”

Here, if you have included a healthy blend of intellectual, performance, civic, and moral qualities, there ought to be a rousing clamour of agreement. If the intellectual and performance are in place parents will readily perceive the progress their offspring will make in academia, and if the civic and moral are at the core they will see the well-rounded citizens they will be proud of.

Behind them all you will be able to explain how each relates to each, how they are far more than those generic soft skills we used to mention, and how they all add up to a school community supportive of Ms Morgan’s closing comment on the January 21: “Every single child deserves the best education possible, and we owe it to children everywhere to make sure that character is at the heart of that.”

  • Matt Bawden is teacher-in-residence at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham. Visit www.jubileecentre.ac.uk

Further information

A Framework for Character Education in Schools is available from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at http://bit.ly/1MrLgEj

Character education series

Matt Bawden’s next article will be out in March. To read previous articles in this series and for SecEd’s other best practice articles relating to character education, visit http://bit.ly/1OvQtqv


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