In Search of Character

In May of this year Education Secretary Nicky Morgan invested more than £500,000 in a schools project which, despite the best intentions, is doomed to fail. It will fail not because of the partners who are involved, the monies being spent or the schools selected but because you cannot ‘do’ character as an after school-club, a series of motivational speakers or as a team sport.

Rugby coaches from premiership clubs were to be drafted into schools to instil character and resilience in disaffected children as part of the government’s “core mission to deliver real social justice”.

No doubt rugby, like many other sports and recreational activities, may build ‘character’ for some children who are well disposed to it and are given enough time to experience success and enjoy participation. However, enjoying rugby doesn’t equate to building character.

The Government used rugby to gain publicity for their £3.5 million character grants scheme which involves diverse organisations such as The Scouts, St John Ambulance, the Church of England, Challenge Network and a number of schools. It also – very handily – diverts attention away from criticism of their changes to the curriculum towards a narrower more restricting academic offer.

27 schools each received £15,000 to prepare young people for life in modern Britain.  The schools were invited to bid. Winners included The King’s School, Devon with a group of 4 secondary schools on a programme with a particular focus on disadvantaged children. Through 4 key character traits of resilience, leadership, community and curiosity the schools will use range of approaches including mentoring, volunteering, outdoor activity, enrichment and enterprise events.

The work the ‘character’ schools are doing I categorise into five broad areas:

  1. A focus on learning dispositions. Honywood School in Essex has My Learning Attributes which form the basis of ‘Ignition Days’ Learning Phases and ‘Showcase’ Reviews with each of 8 Attributes having Practical (holistic) and Pragmatic (subject based) interpretations
  2. A focus on alternative progress measures. Bay House School in Gosport are piloting a project to trace development of personal development through mastery statements on a continuum from ‘emerging’ through’ expected’ to ‘excellence.’
  3. A focus on pupil roles. Ormiston Bushfield Academy use pupils as reading buddies, mentors, student voice activists, charity leaders and learning ambassadors in Primary Schools
  4. A focus on whole school values and ethos. King’s Leadership Academy in Warrington, Cheshire. utilises ‘their Seven pillars’ of character to ‘permeate’ the curriculum, direct extra-curricular activities and inform the day-to-day running of the school.
  5. A focus on additionality. Schools use public speaking, fencing, philosophy and ethics lessons, theatre groups, Army Cadets and young Engineers to expose pupils to a variety of challenges.

The most promise seems to be located where schools embed their work in the everyday life of the school, combining elements of the broad areas outlined above. Also schools need to first define for themselves what they understand by ‘character’ before thinking in detail about how it will be measured. This remains a work in progress.

The University of Birmingham Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues is central to the character approach and closely linked with the Secretary of State’s initiative. The Centre is supporting a Birmingham Free School to integrate character into every lesson. When asked by the BBC what this might mean head teacher Michael Roden says, “We’re trying to get the children to think, to use what the Greeks called phronesis, or good sense – making, as my mum would say, common-sense decisions”

The Jubilee Centre’s research found that with the right approach, it is possible for many kinds of school to nurture good character. Researchers looked for the characteristics of schools whose pupils were, on average, best and least able to respond to a series of moral dilemmas. They found that there was no clear link between the type of school, catchment, size or Ofsted designation and being successful in developing character.

The Centre also found that widely held beliefs about the character building nature of sport were wrong. Students who took part in music, choir or drama outside of school performed better in responding to moral dilemmas than those who did not. Those who reported lots of involvement in sports, including rugby, did no better or perhaps worse.

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