Character education: Introducing virtue

Written by: Matt Bawden | Published:
The middle way: Virtues formed a key part of Greek philosopher Aristotle’s ideas and continue to be central to discussions on character education today (Photo: iStock)
I note with interest that justice, or the virtue of being a just person is not explicitly included ...

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In a new monthly series of best practice articles exploring character education, expert Matt Bawden asks what aspects of character should be central to our education system and details a new DfE-backed pilot project to teach character through the curriculum

“Good character is the foundation for improved attainment and human flourishing.” A Framework for Character Education in Schools, The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Character education is far from new. We are currently experiencing a growth in societal awareness over its importance and relevance, and we are seeing how character education may help us to make modern life all it might be.

At the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, we have been researching character education since we officially formed in 2012.

The Jubilee Centre is the largest research centre in the world dedicated to moral character and virtues. We have 30 staff, many are researchers, and many engage in work with and around schools. Our website is a hub of research and practical information with materials covering the length and breadth of the field in the UK and worldwide.

In this series, each month we will be explaining an element of this complex and varied field to help you plan, develop, and deliver effective character education in your school.

As a centre, we are currently following this process ourselves as we deliver, over the next few months, a new project called Teaching Character Through and Within the Curriculum.

The Department for Education (DfE) generously funded this project, with education secretary Nicky Morgan stating, with reference to character education in general: “This is part of our core mission to deliver real social justice by giving all children, regardless of background, the chance to fulfil their potential and achieve their high aspirations.”

The Teaching Character Through and Within the Curriculum project will demonstrate how to implement character education across 14 subjects, using expert teachers in at least 28 schools.

Each school has put forward a subject specialist who will work with us to design an effective series of character education lessons within their subject areas between September and March of next year. Each series of lessons will be designed to suit a range of schools, ages, and be relevant to lessons now and in the future.

Over the years we have gained plenty of experience designing programmes of study and resources to facilitate character development at a wider school level. These include detailed programmes of study for both secondary and primary phases.

All our resources are free to download from our website and we welcome interest from schools who wish to work with us on this, ground-breaking, DfE project.

In these monthly articles we will lead you on the journey these teachers are taking and demonstrate the core principles behind the approach.

The process ought to feel natural, after all every school is a potential school of character, the issues revolve around whether schools are so intentionally, reflectively, or in a planned manner. We are really bringing the implicit to the foreground, and cultivating the explicit. We all see the character development on the sports fields, and feel the ethos when we walk through the gates. We see the struggle in the classroom, and the progress in the reports. What we are seeking is to provide opportunity during the school day, a narrative for successful human flourishing.

When we brought our band of teachers together our first objective had to be to draw out this narrative and provide a cohesive framework for the new materials.

At the Jubilee Centre we have a clear philosophy for this that draws on thousands of years of ethical tradition and development dating back to Aristotle and drawing on centuries of complementary philosophical frameworks.
Future articles will explore lesson structure, and later how to achieve effective buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders. This article starts with perhaps the most important element – knowing what elements of character we wish to make central to our education.

A shared understanding of ‘character’

The Jubilee Centre focuses on Aristotelian character education, based on reconstructed Aristotelianism (informed by current social scientific findings) rather than mere Aristotelian textual analysis. Professor Kristjan Kristjansson, from the Jubilee Centre, sees character education as “any form of moral education focusing on the development of virtues as stable traits of character with the aim of promoting human flourishing (eudaimonia) and founded on (some) general theory of virtue ethics”.

Such stable traits are often praiseworthy in specific (significant and distinguishable) spheres of human life. This is a non-instrumental approach where character is identified as the morally evaluable subset of personality.

For the Jubilee Centre, the main focus moves from seeing character education as instrumentally leading to better behaviour and higher grades to a focus on its intrinsic value for a flourishing life.

The Jubilee Centre has also shown how such intrinsic value will lead to the behaviour and grades that those instrumentally driving such qualities as resilience and grit desire.

To achieve such intrinsic value it is therefore important to develop virtue literacy, where both students and teachers understand what we are seeking to achieve. A virtue enables us to act or feel in the right way, about the right things, toward the right people, at the right time, for the right reasons: this is what Aristotle called the doctrine of the mean, or the middle way.

These qualities can be divided usefully into four domains: moral, performance, intellectual, and civic.
Each has a role to play in enabling us to act in the way outlined above. Moral virtues of honesty and integrity; performance virtues of drive and resilience; intellectual virtues of conscientiousness and curiosity; civic virtues of neighbourliness and community spirit have all been highlighted by the DfE for this project, alongside several others.

Each virtue has a clear place in our schools, and each matters in particular circumstances. Many schools select key virtues and include them in their ethos – a swift read through the first few pages of the school website will often highlight a broad range. The thing that holds them all together, and takes a degree of cultivation, os what we call phronesis.

This is “good sense”, “practical wisdom”, or judgement. It is this enabling us to see the middle way through our collected virtues, to avoid deficiencies or excesses, and to aim our lives towards our own, and others’, flourishing.

As explained by Liz Garrity from the Co-operative Academy of Stoke on Trent: “Behaviour for learning, self-control, team-work, patience, trust, resolving conflict and disputes and a more mature attitude to learning will all be developed and become a common culture in the school.

“It is a good opportunity for schools to reference their vision and core values, which these lessons will surely complement.”

There is little doubting this comment, the examples we, on the project, outline are relevant to all areas. Yet some are more fitting for particular occasions. As Richard Farnan at Harrogate Grammar School noted: “Science lends itself to empathy and respect.”

For this project, we took the virtues the DfE identified and asked our teachers to select three or four that they felt can be readily associated with their subjects.

Below is the complete list of key character qualities identified by the DfE with our interpretation of whether they are performance (P), moral (M), intellectual (I), civic (C) virtues:

  • Perseverance (P)
  • Confidence (P)
  • Resilience (P)
  • Optimism (P)
  • Grit (P)
  • Neighbourliness (C)
  • Motivation (P)
  • Community spirit (C)
  • Ambition (P)
  • Honesty (M)
  • Drive (P)
  • Integrity (M)
  • Tolerance (M)
  • Dignity (M)
  • Respect (M)
  • Conscientiousness (I)
  • Curiosity (I)
  • Focus (I)

When you look at this list how do you see your school’s provision? How would you audit it? How might you make what is implicitly happening explicit? Where might you grow opportunities for these qualities in your lessons and wider curriculum?

Next time, we will explain the process we use for planning the sessions and including the full range
of qualities above. It is a simple and logical series of steps.

In the meantime, feel free to explore our website and contact us with questions or expressions of interest in this project.

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

Further information

A Framework for Character Education in Schools, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues:

I note with interest that justice, or the virtue of being a just person is not explicitly included in your list of virtues identified by the schools you are working with. Nicky Morgan has mentioned 'social justice' as a key value and justice is one of the four cardinal virtues and is the subject of an entire book by Aristotle. Justice/fairness is a characteristic of a society or community where its members have what is due to them and give the same to others. Do you regard it as subsumed or implicit within some of the other virtues in the list? It would be a pity not to make it explicit since it is a key concept of citizenship education and is central to social and political life.
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