There are many ways to build character

Written by: Deborah Lawson | Published:
Deborah Lawson, general secretary, Voice

In proposing his Five Foundations for Building Character, the education secretary has set out his definition of character and resilience – but young people build these traits in many others ways that deserve recognition too, says Deborah Lawson

“Character and resilience are as crucial to young people’s future success as academic qualifications,” education secretary Damian Hinds said last month in a Department for Education press release.

I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment although demonstrating this to a potential employer, or to Ofsted, is a different matter.

Mr Hinds set out Five Foundations for Building Character and pledged to work with schools and organisations to help “every child” access activities within each of those foundations.

He didn’t actually use the phrase “as crucial” in the published text of his speech (at the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership conference), but the softer “education is about more than just academic achievement, important though that is”. Encouragingly, he was “delighted” that the draft Education Inspection Framework proposes placing clear importance on personal development and positive attitudes.

In a paragraph seemingly copied and pasted from the draft EIF, he told us that: “Inspectors will evaluate the extent to which schools support pupils to develop their character – including their resilience, confidence and independence – and help them know how to keep physically and mentally healthy”.

From a school’s perspective, however, it is important to know and understand how inspectors will evaluate pupils’ “resilience, confidence and independence”. That remains to be seen.

Such aspirations are laudable – and don’t cost the government much money.

However, let’s not forget the on-going effects of austerity, the loss of so many specialist teaching assistants and pastoral support learning managers, and the demise of: the Extended Schools programme (which encouraged out-of-school activities), Every Child Matters (which aimed to support children to “stay safe, be healthy, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic wellbeing”), the youth service and the Connexions careers service. It seems that schools and students may have to develop character and resilience by taking all this on board without the resources, capacity or time to do so – and in the face of Westminster’s commercialised, results-driven agenda.

The rhetorically pleasing “five foundations for building character” are built on unstable foundations. Mr Hinds’ vision of “character” appears to be based on the middle class “public school confidence” that he praised in his speech.

Indeed “confidence” should not “be the prerogative of those whose parents are able to give them an expensive education”. But is this type of “confidence” something that “all children” should have?

Who decides what “character” is and what it should look like? Are we trying to develop thinking individuals, or conformists who fit into a mould of politicians’ choosing?

The five foundations are “Sport”, including “traditional, competitive team sports”. But does sport always have to be competitive and/or team?

“Creativity”, meanwhile, includes subjects such as “art, design, creative writing and composing music”, along with “Performing”, which includes “drama, theatre, dance” – all excluded from the EBacc.

“Volunteering and Membership” mentions “voluntary youth groups, campaigns of particular interest to the young, or school-based initiatives”. It would be interesting to know if the recent pupil protests on climate change are a suitable “initiative”.

And “World of Work” includes “actual work experience or a Saturday job”, but do children have time to do Saturday jobs with all the homework and study they need to put in to help schools reach their performance targets?

Yes, these are all praiseworthy aspirations, but many young people are, through necessity, developing “character” in different and more challenging ways – some by being a young carer or by navigating the benefits system or translating for parents who speak little or no English.

“Learning ways to cope with whatever the task in hand is” has a different meaning for these children and they should be applauded and recognised by politicians nonetheless.

Government posters state that “world-class education” means prioritising the most disadvantaged. It certainly does. There are many ways to build “character” – and many different characters – and our education and social welfare systems – and our politicians – need to recognise this.

Character-building takes place both within and outside school, and schools and other agencies need support – in terms of staff, funding, resources and political aspirations – to provide the strong foundations and scaffolding for that building to take place. Schools and the education workforce of teachers, teaching assistants and other support staff cannot be expected to deliver this aspiration – however laudable – alone.

  • Deborah Lawson is the general secretary of education union Voice.

Further information

Education secretary sets out vision for character and resilience, DfE, February 2019: http://bit.ly/2C5zEGM


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