What will this year hold for character education?

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

The government has thrown its backing behind character education, with a national awards and financial grants. Suzanne O'Connell looks at how schools might embrace and prioritise this agenda in the year ahead

We have had the Character Awards and the character grants have been allocated. In the next school year we can expect to see yet more emphasis on character education. But what exactly might this mean?

The majority of schools welcomed the new emphasis on character education announced by the Department for Education (DfE). "Schools were ready for its introduction," said Dr Tom Harrison, director of development at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, part of Birmingham University. "They're tired of the push on testing and are aware of the need for more of an emphasis on wellbeing. It came just at the right time."

Not only were they ready for it but many schools felt they were practising it already. It is, as Dr Harrison concedes, a very broad term: "People fit a lot under the heading including qualities, strengths and values. It's often combined with resilience but resilience needs a context. You can be a criminal who is resilient to prison, we don't want to develop it in that context."

Dr Harrison has spent many years working on research and development programmes relating to character and citizenship. The Jubilee Centre is one of those awarded a grant by the DfE following the round of applications in January of this year. If your school is looking to determine its own definition of character education then the Jubilee Centre's Framework for Character Education in Schools is a good place to start.

The Framework for Character Education in Schools

The Jubilee Centre has been working actively with schools on character education for many years. Their framework provides a useful discussion document, backed up with resources that schools can use to develop their own understanding.

The Jubilee Centre has drawn up a list of prototypical virtues. What the Jubilee Centre's approach doesn't do is tell schools what their virtues should be. "Schools pick their virtues for themselves," explained Dr Harrison. "We perhaps indicate some examples but we don't dictate to them." The virtues selected will depend on the community and the context.

Although the centre doesn't dictate them it has provided a list of the virtues that "have been highlighted in some of the most influential philosophical and religious systems of morality – and that also resonate well with current efforts at character education in schools".

These include the moral character virtues of:

  • Courage.
  • Justice.
  • Honesty.
  • Compassion for others.
  • Self-discipline.
  • Gratitude.
  • Humility/modesty.

They also include civic virtues, such as:

  • Service.
  • Citizenship.
  • Volunteering.

Performance virtues include the following:

  • Resilience.
  • Application.
  • Self-regulation.

The list of intellectual virtues includes:

  • Curiosity.
  • Critical-thinking.
  • Good sense.

Good sense is knowing what to want and what not to want when two or more virtues collide; such as compassion for others and honesty. "It's not about harking back to a golden age," Dr Harrison said. "It's what young people need to flourish now and in the future. It's about both the individual and society progressively meeting challenges."

The next task for the Jubilee Centre is to disseminate their work to schools and enable those who are interested to develop their character education along the lines of The Framework for Character Education in Schools. In the meantime the Jubilee Centre continues to focus on research and development.

Character Nation

One of the Jubilee Centre's most recent projects is Character Nation, a report produced in partnership with the think-tank Demos. This joint report into character development and education provides a series of policy recommendations for the new government in order to embed character development across the education system.

The authors of the report are aware of the key role that Ofsted has in what is delivered in school. However, in the newly released Common Inspection Framework there isn't any specific reference to character education. The report recommends:

  • Replacing the requirement for spiritual, moral, social and cultural development (SMSC) with "character development", placing this on an equal par with attainment measures in Ofsted inspections.
  • Character development should replace the requirement to encourage "British values".
  • Ofsted should adopt a multi-criteria method for measuring character development rather than a single quantitative measure.
  • Ofsted should assess the health and wellbeing of the school environment to safeguard the character development of students and staff.

If these recommendations are put into place then all schools must take character education seriously. The report recommends that a senior member of staff should be allocated the responsibility for this aspect of the curriculum. At present, implementation is patchy and the authors acknowledge that it isn't currently a priority in the curriculum of some schools.

The authors put some of this down to the emphasis upon measurement and attainment metrics which are overshadowing subjects like SMSC. They comment that although character development has been considered to be a core aim of education it has never been fully embedded into education policy. The focus on attainment data has pushed softer aspects, such as character education, to the side.

The Character Nation report would like to see the government making a clear statement of intent for education that strongly emphasises character development. There should be a national framework for outcomes based on moral, intellectual, civic and performance skills and virtues.

The report favours a model where character education is woven throughout the curriculum and suggests that it is "caught" as a result of school ethos and taking part in different activities and experiences rather than being "taught" explicitly in the classroom.

Many of the best practice examples they came across highlighted project-based learning, group and interactive work, role-play and taking part in informal learning activities.

Character Nation recommends that schools involve the school community in defining the school's values or virtues and that they should conduct an annual general meeting with stakeholders to review what these are and evaluate progress.

Next steps

The Jubilee Centre might be clear on their understanding of character education, but a glance through the variety of projects, programmes and organisations who have successfully bid for a grant gives a flavour of the diversity there is. The 14 grants awarded include to Premier Rugby Limited, St John Ambulance, the Scout Association, the Youth Sport Trust, the Prince's Trust, and City Year UK.

The implementation of the Character Nation report would go a long way towards bringing a more coherent understanding to the table. There is value in having a range of providers but they should still be focused around a shared concept of what schools should be looking to achieve.

It could be that the new Association for Character Education (ACE), due to be launched early this term, will be able to bring thinking along these lines together. The association is expected to work on establishing a quality mark for Schools of Character and to hold annual conferences on the subject. For the first year, it has been announced, membership will be free.

While schools are positive and good research is available, it is time to discuss the ideal profile that we would like young people to develop and how we might help them to do this. Here is one opportunity to establish a much-needed addition to the focus on academic attainment in our schools. 

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

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