Character education: Assuring quality

Written by: Matt Bawden | Published:
Photo: MA Education

Continuing his regular series exploring character education, Matt Bawden looks at the difficult area of how we can assure the quality and impact of character education

“A well-educated child or young person should be well-rounded, with a range of interests, a real sense of character and grit, equipped for adult life.”
Nicky Morgan, secretary of state for education, November 2015.

In previous articles for SecEd we have explored what we mean by “character” across four domains: civic, intellectual, performance, and importantly moral virtues or key character qualities. Then we looked at a process for creating character education in schools based around Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar (see further information for link).

This time we begin to explore a key issue with character education – how we assure it is of high quality.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan’s speech at the Mayor of London’s Education Conference in November demonstrated her belief in the importance of character education. Further into her speech, from which the opening quote of this article is taken, she adds that academic success and character education “are mutually dependent and inextricably intertwined”.

There is clear momentum behind character at the moment in UK schools, but the opening of this Pandora’s Box may bring both problems and pitfalls.

Character is an incredibly complex construct and has many facets, and this makes it one of the greatest challenges for researchers. It can be really difficult to pair measurement tools with our reasons for measuring the quality of our character education. There may even be a point to removing all of these complexities and simply relying on a well-grounded mission statement, a clear ethos, or a display of our vision and values.

So first we need to be very clear over why we are seeking quality assurance. We may be wishing to gain a better understanding of the collective character of a cohort of students, and gather information about where to direct resources and time. This developmental purpose can be counterbalanced by the desire to evaluate the effectiveness of a particular character-based intervention, in other words to see what works.

There are many tools available for assessing student virtue and character education programmes. Those with a quantitative framework include self-report and observer-report surveys, dilemma tests and school climate surveys.

They seek to quantify the magnitude of virtue literacy (the knowledge and understanding of virtue terms and concepts, such as in the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues’ Knightly Virtues Project – see further information) or behaviour in individual students, their moral reasoning and decision-making, or the teacher’s performance.

Qualitative tools often take the form of “passports”, journals, and semi-structured interviews that assess students’ beliefs, self-perceptions, virtue literacy, decision-making, and moral reasoning.
When starting out to assure quality there must be clarity over what we are trying to measure, and why.

Adrian Harding, assistant headteacher for teaching and learning at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Derbyshire (QEGS), said: “It is essential the profession becomes more evidence-based because drawing upon different sources, both quantitative and qualitative, means we can evaluate current provision.

“This itself then informs future provision, and ensures standards are both maintained and improved, for the best outcomes for all students.”

Mr Harding has wrestled with a wide variety of measures and developed new systems for quality assurance at his school. Yet even now he continues to be aware of the need to constantly monitor the tools he uses and to refine them for each new situation.

With regard to character education, Natalie Jennings, QEGS’ curriculum leader for art, has said she finds “starting with a character education focus has a really positive impact on the work students produce, and on the way they see art and design”. Yet measuring this impact to triangulate her findings can present a very real problem.

QEGS has taken a mixed approach using both quantitative and qualitative measures, and has based many of them on those used in the Jubilee Centre’s Teaching Character Through, and Within, the Curriculum – a project being backed by the Department for Education (DfE).

One of the problems schools face is over measuring long-term impact. How do we measure the development of key character qualities such as honesty and compassion over time? Many tools choose to focus on performance virtues such as resilience, teamwork and leadership, perhaps as they are perceived to be easier to measure, but this results in completing only half a puzzle with an absence of what we call the moral or civic virtues.

Even if we can agree upon which of these other virtues or key character qualities to analyse, we still need to create a measure to address all their various aspects (cognitive, affective, motivational, behavioural, etc.).

There is an additional problem associated with self-reporting in that we can never be sure of the role personal bias plays in what is recorded. If we are asking students to complete surveys, or to write qualitative answers, will they write what they believe or what they think we wish to read?

If we, as teachers, are recording our observations will we colour our findings to match our own leanings? Even if we set out to create an objective framework we may struggle as we design questions to illicit the findings we believe we should discover.

Ready-made tools can be similarly problematic as they are seldom designed specifically to find those particular things we wish to know.

So, perhaps, we need to see measurement for the quality assurance of character in schools as a means to encourage debate and reflection. If we remove the noose formed by the rope of objectivity we can accept findings as plausibly relative and engage in meaningful discussions even across schools.

All we need is honesty and the desire to clarify our methods for others to see. If we know why a school has measured something, and how they did so, we can read their findings with their eyes.

We will begin to give more credence to data, whether quantitative or qualitative, which triangulates findings. As a part of this honesty, schools need to be transparent about the level of virtue literacy of the research team.

Returning to QEGS, executive headteacher and National Leader of Education, Anne Martin, stresses the need for all such research to be led by a character education specialist on the school’s senior leadership team, and for the approach to be woven in to the school’s documentation (such as the self-evaluation form and work with the school improvement partner) and relate to both external and internal policy directives.

In my role as teacher-in-residence at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, I am responsible for evaluation of the DfE project mentioned earlier. I work with others at the Jubilee Centre, and the great teachers from the 28 schools currently involved in the project, on a wide variety of measures to triangulate our findings. For me the tools are what bring the character education from the background to the fore.

My next articles will explore “buy-in” for character education and I will return to quality assurance. No stakeholder will ever buy-in to character education if we cannot prove its worth. In the meantime, it might be interesting to consider the questions I have posed in this article and think about whether your staff and school leadership can really, honestly and clearly see the same character in your school as you see – and how do you know?

  • 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

Character education series

The next article in this series will be out on January 21. To read previous articles (Introducing virtue and A caterpillar process) and for SecEd’s other best practice articles relating to character education, visit http://bit.ly/1OvQtqv


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