Character education: What does it look like?

Written by: Tom Haigh | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The virtues and traits that are developed through effective character education have never been more important as young people navigate their way through the Covid-19 pandemic. Drawing on the Schools of Character Kitemark, Tom Haigh looks at what it means place character at the heart of your school

Never before has character education been so relevant. Resilience can provide children with the strength to navigate through the adversity caused by Covid-19; compassion can create a culture of understanding and empathy for how others have been affected.

And as we retreat to our small social bubbles to ensure our safety, a sense of civic duty will ensure that the vulnerable are not out of sight nor out of mind.

The character virtues that underpin a school’s ethos and culture (such as trust, respect, perseverance or courage) will help to positively galvanize a school community as it starts to come back together.

However, despite the role character education can play in response to the current crisis, teachers and schools report that they require much more support in this area.

The Department for Education reported that fewer than one in six schools have a plan for how to deliver character education and nearly half are not familiar with the term (DfE, 2017).

In a study of 450 student teachers, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, at the University of Birmingham, found that less than eight per cent were familiar with the term character education and knew what it meant. Yet when character education was explained, 98 per cent felt it should be delivered in some form or another (Philips, 2018).

But what is character education and what does it actually look like? Character is acquired in and out of the classroom and developed beyond the school gates. Character can be taught as stand-alone lessons but is also integrated into core curriculum. Character is developed through extra-curricular activities and during assemblies. Character is acquired through the role modelling of teachers and built into reward and sanction systems.

The Jubilee Centre explains that: “Character education is about helping students grasp what is ethically important in situations and how to act for the right reasons, such that they become more autonomous and reflective.” (Jubilee Centre, 2017)

Put simply good character is underpinned by an ability to make good decisions and good choices. An ability that can have huge consequences, especially in the context of the current coronavirus pandemic.

Where character education has been consistently implemented across a whole school, the Association for Character Education (ACE) has awarded the Schools of Character Kitemark. These schools have a clear idea of their core character-based virtues. These then inform the content of assemblies and tutor time. They help shape specific themed days, whether this is a focus on enterprise or literature. These schools have a rich co-curricular provision that they monitor to ensure opportunities are taken up by a diverse demographic of pupils as well as building in opportunities for reflection to understand how their character is being forged through the experience. They take advantage of external programmes like the Duke of Edinburgh Award and National Citizen Service as vehicles to support the development of character.

Schools of Character also see the core curriculum as an opportunity to explore character. Pupils have studied the virtues of prominent historical figures that have brought about positive change, whether this be leaders of the civil rights movement or famous scientists such as Emerson or Einstein.

Pupils have shown incredible insight into understanding how the character of these famous people played such a crucial role in their achievements, and what these character traits can do to help them achieve their own personal goals and aspirations. Exploring the virtues and vices of key characters in texts within the English literature curriculum offers ample opportunity to explore character and how to navigate through moral dilemmas.

A school’s character provision is always driven by the headteacher but will invariably have character leads or “champions” to ensure it is embedded across all departments. Developing leadership will not stop at staff, with pupils’ leadership potential also being nurtured through school councils, mentoring programmes, volunteering and other initiatives.

A school’s character virtues will inform recruitment processes by shaping job profiles and interview questions. They will be used in one-to-ones and professional reviews to help staff to reflect on their own character, as well as how they teach it.

A School of Character will ensure staff model the character virtues they promote in their pupils. As part of this, schools need a consistent language around character that the whole school understands and relates to.

A school’s chosen character virtues will feed into inductions for staff and year 7s, to ensure new members of the school community are versed in the school’s ethos. Training will be provided to ensure staff have the ability and confidence to deliver on their responsibilities around character.

Schools of Character also understand that involvement needs to go beyond teachers and leaders, and extend to governors and parents. In order to develop civic-based virtues, the governor of one Kitemark school regularly organises an intergenerational project between service users in a local care home and the school’s pupils.

Compassion, empathy and a sense of citizenship are just three character traits that such an experience can foster. Another school would often invite alumni back to speak with pupils about the role their character had played in supporting them, to fulfil their ambitions along with business leaders and other inspiring speakers.

Character is just as much developed in the home as at school, so Schools of Character recognise that working with parents on the development a child’s character is vital.

Northampton Academy has even developed a comprehensive Character Development at Home section on its website in the wake of schools closing, with the strapline: “Crisis doesn’t create character, it reveals it.”

It has everything from links to inspiring Ted Talks relating to character and ways of development leadership through carrying our tasks within the home to debating topics within the family.

The development of good character has been recognised since ancient times as crucial for people and society to flourish. The current circumstances have affected modern society in ways that were unimaginable in the past, but the role that strong character can play in our ability to respond in a wise and compassionate way, remains the same.

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