Character education: The why before the how

Written by: Tom Haigh | Published:
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Launching character education in your school? Tom Haigh urges schools to start off with the why and not the how…

“I know character education is essential for our students to flourish, and I know it can totally transform our school, but how do I get the rest of my colleagues bought in?”

After delivering a webinar recently to more than 100 schools and colleges on how to become a “school of character”, this was the most common question.

Character education will always have a limited impact unless it is woven into every element of the school. It needs to be done through a whole-school approach and this can only be achieved if staff and stakeholders buy-in to what we are trying to do.

Once this happens you have a critical mass of support and there is a tipping point. No longer is there one lonely voice banging the character drum. No longer is there one member of staff who feels like they are pushing water up a hill.

With a critical mass of staff driving character it will be easily integrated into the curriculum, into assemblies, it will feature naturally at parent evenings, within the school newsletter, it will appear in job adverts, and so on.

But how do you get this critical mass? The answer is to start with the why and not the how. It can be so tempting to present colleagues with a beautifully formed plan of how character can be woven into the very DNA of the school. But unless time is invested in supporting colleagues to understand why character education is so important, this plan will be seen as just another fad and it will soon fade.

The leadership coach Simon Sinek explains that it is essential to “communicate from the inside out”, as people do not buy into what you do, but why you do it.

This can feel counterintuitive, but the best schools of character will work from the inside out. They will support colleagues to see that the development of character will enable their students to flourish, both now and in the future (in the workplace, in their relationships, and all areas of their lives).

The Confederation of British Industry’s (CBI) 2019 report on getting young people “work-ready” cited research undertaken by Dell Technologies showing that 85 per cent of the jobs that our young people will be doing in 2030 have not yet been invented.

The CBI argues that “employers are placing increasing importance on character traits to ensure workforces can navigate the future with resilience”.

I wrote recently in SecEd about the Schools of Character Kitemark, which is run by the Association for Character Education. Schools of Character will support their staff to understand that one significant purpose of the education they deliver is to ensure their pupils have the right character strengths to thrive into the future. They will help them to understand why character education is important, not just how it will be implemented.

But the why goes beyond the flourishment of the child and extends to flourishment of the whole school, its teachers, staff and community. Any school of character will have exemplary behaviour, lower rates of exclusions, higher levels of attendance, improved attainment, low staff turnover and will report higher levels of pupil and staff wellbeing.

Character education done well will oil the wheels of all areas of the school. But “buy-in” is not just restricted to colleagues. Schools awarded the School of Character Kitemark, deliver their character provision in partnership with parents.

These schools recognise that character continues to be developed in the home, once the school day finishes. These schools also see it as an equal and collaborative partnership. After all, there is no better way to discourage parent engagement than attempting to “educate” parents and carers on how to develop character in their children.

One school recently informed me that they had taken the bold move that for certain year groups they only reported on the pupils’ character and not their attainment, and this was fully supported by parents.

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue recently undertook research in which evidence was gathered through a questionnaire with 376 parents and 137 teachers about the extent to which they had shared understandings about the importance of character and what they perceived to be the barriers and enablers to them working collaboratively on character education (Harrison et al, 2020).

The research found that both parents and teachers prioritised character over attainment, but both groups perceived that the other prioritised attainment. So, clearly there is the opportunity to improve the flow of communication between teachers and parents on the importance of character.

In response to this finding, the Jubilee Centre hasve developed and piloted a workshop for parents and teachers to help them come together to discuss issues related to character education. You can download the workshop materials for free online (see further information).

Further information & resources

  • The Jubilee Centre will be sharing Why parent engagement is so important in developing character along with innovative ways of how this can happen, via webinar on July 14 at 11am. To register, email your name and affiliation, with the subject line ‘Parents Webinar’ to
  • To download the parental engagement workshop materials mentioned in the article, visit
  • CBI: Getting young people ‘work-ready’, June 2019:
  • Harrison et al: An evaluation of a workshop for parents and teachers on character education, Jubilee Centre, May 2020:
  • SecEd: Character education: What does it look like? Tom Haigh, May 2020:


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