The cornerstones of character: Leadership

Written by: Matt Bawden | Published:
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The importance of good leadership in mental health and character education provision has been identified as one of the four cornerstones of best practice. Matt Bawden explores what this might look like

In a previous article I focused on two recent reports from the Department for Education (DfE), which suggest that four cornerstones are needed for successful in-school mental health and character education provision (The links between mental health and character education, SecEd, September 2017:

These cornerstones are leadership, accountability, direction and opportunity. In my next four articles for SecEd, I shall address these cornerstones. This article addresses the role that explicit school mental health and character education leadership can play in developing effective provision.

The school I work in has a dedicated social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) leader, who takes on a training role as well as offering triage. He co-ordinates with others and identifies need. He leads staff training and supports the pastoral systems.

It is an enviable position for our school to be in, and yet there are alternatives. The DfE reports are clear many schools offer widely differing approaches that we can all learn from. What makes them effective is their ability to support our pupils and offer accountability, direction, and opportunity.

Mental health and character

For these four articles, I will conflate mental health provision with character education. In so doing I am not seeking to confuse things, but rather to illustrate the sense that such an approach offers.

Mental health provision is all about human flourishing. Great provision is not about solely addressing mental ill-health, it is about health. The approach is not focused on repair alone, but equally on prevention.

The mental health leader builds a school environment where mental health or wellbeing is the everyday and ill-health can be addressed.
Character educators see things similarly. They see the qualities of mind and character a young person (or member of staff) possesses as being on a journey. The qualities we have are in a state of flux. They can be domain-specific, appearing to be things we possess in one, several or all our varying walks of life.

For example. I might appear confident in lessons and yet petrified when asked to lead an assembly. It doesn’t mean I lack confidence, it just means I could do with working on it in that setting. If a school has a leader who is concerned with both the young person’s mental wellbeing and their qualities the two do seem a natural fit.

Placing mental health provision alongside character might still seem strange were it not for our current government’s focus on essential “life-skills”, especially in the 12 Opportunity Areas. The Education Endowment Foundation is supporting these, and the National Citizen Service is continuing to offer a programme of personal development and volunteering.

While this is the case, and all parties continue to stress the need for young people to develop qualities such as resilience for their own and society’s good, then it makes sense for schools to tackle these agendas together. After all, resilience is a character quality that our young people need in all their walks of life.

Strong leadership

Regardless of the size of the school and whether we choose to tie mental health and character provision together there will need to be strong leadership. It may be that the leader has a team, or will be working with others from different teams, but regardless there will be a need for leadership. Leaders need to do many things and may need to rely on the leadership of others. In any case successful leadership in this field requires a few essential attributes.

Leaders help set the direction. As a good leader has an overview, he or she can offer a route through whatever the current turbulence might be.

Many researchers have highlighted how we are facing more and more cases of mental ill-health in our young people, and there is now a growing industry offering wellbeing solutions. Sometimes these work off-the-peg, but in most cases schools adapt them, shaping them to their needs and cherry-picking the things that will offer the most benefit to staff or students. Training is often expensive and the leader needs to decide who is trained and how this training will inform the work of others.

Leaders manage the day-to-day. Not only do they set a direction, they also equip the school with others who can make this vision a reality. Many agencies can work in schools, from those offering therapy and counselling through to careers advice and legal support. Each will be a specialist, and most will work in other settings. On a day-to-day basis these external experts will come and go with their deep understanding of clinical need, but perhaps less understanding of the school. The leader can offer this.

Leaders signpost. Within the mental health/character education structures, someone has to make sure the right people, students or staff, know the right provision for them. This might be making sure that individuals access the correct therapy, or other leaders know what is on offer on which day. Signposting might involve physical flyers being posted around the site, but it is more important that they make people aware via a broader range of activities, including assemblies/briefings, training and lessons, or setting up peer/buddy mentors who know what happens when and where.

Leaders lead, and yes that may seem obvious. But leaders are role-models. If their mental health is not right then they will not be able to ensure accountability, direction, and opportunity. The buck has to stop somewhere and it really must stop with those who set the direction.

By taking responsibility, others will be happy to share it. If the leader abdicates responsibility then others will be reticent to take it up. Someone has to set the tone. As the mental health/character education lead, the leader has the training and the skills to recognise what responsibility others can handle, grow with, or thrive on. The leader can then make it a reward to have responsibility – a recognition of expertise, rather than a burden.

Leaders enable others, and never disable. This means they must include, where possible, and invigorate. They can work alone – after all
everyone has jobs to do. But sometimes they must, and should, work with others. When they do this they enrich and are enriched by those alongside them. Having led many teams, I’m aware how tricky it can be to enable when the task is huge and the time limited. Often this is the situation in schools, but each small success is a step towards better provision.

Leaders free up others to do things. When there is little time the time we have becomes precious. The leader who recognises that others may have a greater chance of success, and offers time to the person to do what they can is far more likely to succeed.

Offering to cover a colleague or team member’s lesson, being willing to do their lunch duty or write a report for them while they undertake something for the leader does far more than give them the time to do their work, it also reaffirms the leader’s belief in their skill-set, and signals that everyone is in this together.

Finally leaders facilitate. Helping to co-ordinate busy people is often as much of a necessity as coming up with ideas, or demonstrating best practice. Schools no longer have any spare capacity, if they ever did, and the modern mental health/character education leader now needs to keep an overview of all those who can have an impact on the student’s wellbeing and watch for opportunities to free them up to do more, and offer more support.


Leaders need to wear many hats in order to provide great mental health and character education provision – to be accountable, to provide opportunity, and a sense of direction.

In my next article, I will be addressing accountability and referring to inspection, the needs of the school community, and (most important of all) the welfare of our students and staff. I am always interested to hear examples of best practice so please do get in touch.SecEd

  • Matt Bawden is an assistant headteacher at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne and editor of the Association for Character Education eJournal Character Matters. Follow @ourschoolday. To read his previous articles and SecEd’s other best practice relating to character education, visit

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