Character education – is it the solution?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Photo: iStock

With increasing concerns about mental health, Suzanne O'Connell asks whether character education is really part of the solution

The deteriorating mental health of the nation is receiving a high profile. According to the Department of Health (DH) document Future in Mind, in an average class of 30 children, three will suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder including conduct disorders (5.8 per cent), anxiety (3.3 per cent), depression (0.9 per cent), and severe ADHD (1.5 per cent).

In order to address this, the DH has announced that in 2015/16 schools will be encouraged to "continue to develop whole-school approaches to promoting mental health and wellbeing. This will include through a new counselling strategy for schools, alongside the Department for Education's other work on character and resilience and PSHE".

This linking together of mental health issues and character education is also evident in the DfE's document Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools. The building of "character and grit" is one of the approaches identified in this guidance as helping to "bolster" mental health.

The Character Awards

In December 2014, education secretary Nicky Morgan announced a package of measures to help instil character in pupils, including extra funding for projects run by former armed service personnel. Alongside this were the Character Awards, with schools encouraged to apply for prize money of £15,000 for their work in character education.

In February, the 27 successful schools were announced. Oakthorpe Primary School in Derbyshire was one of those receiving an award. Headteacher Donna Mould said that Oakthorpe was already encouraging self-directed learning and the key drivers of ABC – Being Active, Being Brilliant and Being a Communicator.

The School Council is an essential component of school improvement and designed the school's behaviour reward system. The additional £15,000 that Oakthorpe has received will now help them to work with other schools on developing these approaches. They plan to combine with local schools to hold a school council conference.

St James's CE Primary School in the West Midlands was another winner. Their application is full of examples of enrichment activities, extra-curricular clubs and opportunities to develop enterprise and life-skills.

Their school core values include "perseverance, honesty, kindness, responsibility, respect and friendship". It adds: "We teach our children that these values and character traits are life-long skills which can be transferred to lots of situations in life."

It was not only schools that received awards. Bath Rugby Foundation received one for their projects which aim to raise the confidence of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Vicky Heslop is the Foundation's education manager: "The programme is offered free to schools and aims to engage young people more in their learning. We focus on teamwork, empathy, emotional wellbeing and perseverance."

Most of the schools applying for the awards, did so on the basis of programmes that were already in place and would once have been called "values education" or PSHE. Looking through the winning applications there is a huge amount of variety in what schools are offering. Much of it is wrapped up in terms of "values", "attributes", "pillars" and "traits".

Altogether the 27 awards refer to 41 different aspects of "character education". Some of these are skills such as effective communication and financial literacy, some are social skills such as team-work and others are to do with innovation and creativity. Schools have responded to the wide-ranging brief given by the DfE with wide-ranging programmes.

But what is character education?

There seems to be a lack of clarity around what character education actually is. In the DfE's initial press release it is very much entwined with projects to encourage the involvement of the armed forces. There seems to be confusion with talk about "values" mixed with the development of "leadership" sprinkled with a number of references to "grit".

It is something Ms Heslop noticed: "I was rather surprised by the breadth of the different programmes that were successful. Some of them, including the overall winner, had a very military feel to them and were reminiscent of independent schools."

Karen Ames, who developed the My World project for year 6 pupils, which emphasises the importance of developing self-confidence, raising self-esteem and resilience, is cautious about this aspect: "I am apprehensive about the emphasis on the armed services. This implies that other community organisations are not able to 'instil character' in pupils."

When advertising for bids to support character education the DfE uses the terms: perseverance, resilience and grit; confidence and optimism; motivation, drive and ambition; neighbourliness and community spirit; tolerance and respect; honesty, integrity and dignity; conscientiousness, curiosity and focus. A DfE press release also refers to "military ethos providers" and the ABCD building blocks of character: altruism, bounce back, comfort-zone busting, and destination.

"When it comes to 'destination'," Ms Ames continued, "developing links with employers is a key component, especially in the pupils' local area. I don't think the military ethos model highlights the importance of children being taken outside of the school environment to see the world of work around them. I recognise the importance of these building blocks but not necessarily as part of a military ethos."

Schools and their partners are engaged in some wonderful work and the applications for the Character Awards make impressive reading. However, they describe the type of ethos-building and "values" education that the majority of schools are already committed to and have been for a while.

The limiting factor to them taking this work further has often been the pressures of accountability: "The difficulty they face is finding time within the jam-packed curriculum to allocate to projects that do contribute to the development of the 'well-rounded' pupil," Ms Ames added.

If schools are already engaged in these types of activities, is repackaging them as "character education" going to really address the rise in mental health issues in our schools?

The link with mental health

Dr Pooky Knightsmith, a child and adolescent mental health specialist, says that the initiative must be more than a box-ticking exercise. In order to prevent issues like self-harm and eating disorders she sees primary schools as vital and urges them to help children to develop healthy coping skills, communication and problem-solving skills: "Children need to be able to name, understand, explain and respond to their emotions. They need understanding and the confidence to seek help."

Many of these features are contained in the applications for the Character Awards and Dr Knightsmith is optimistic: "Essentially, I think the project as a whole has the possibility to do a great deal of good, but it will depend on the merits of each specific project and how well they are incorporated into the school."

However, the PSHE Association in its document, Preparing to Teach About Mental Health and Emotional Wellbeing, warns that we shouldn't trivialise mental health issues or tell people with significant issues to "pull themselves together" or to keep their "chin up". There may be danger of placing the "bounce back" language

in this frame

The good news from all this is that the government does acknowledge that the work of schools is more than just about promoting academic excellence. What we perhaps need now is to stop making word soup of the issue and consider very carefully what we are actually talking about.

  • Suzanne O'Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

More information

  • Future in Mind: Promoting, protecting and improving our children and young people's mental health and wellbeing (Department of Health, March 2015):
  • Teacher Guidance: Preparing to teach about mental health and emotional wellbeing (PSHE Association, March 2015):

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