Government nudges schools and academies to give more prominence to character education

31 Dec

On 5 November 2019, the government published a new set of benchmarks for schools and academies to rate how well they are doing to promote character education.  The guidance urges governors and headteachers develop, promote and assess pupils’ character within their normal curriculum.  They are also asked to encourage pupils to volunteer.   This mirrors the benchmarks that the former Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, set out for careers education Gatsby Foundation.  However, character education (unlike careers) is not statutory.

Ian Bauckham, chief executive of the Tenax School Trust, led an advisory group, which included representatives from other schools and academies, the unions and the voluntary sector, in the spring and summer of 2019 to create the benchmarks.

In the halcyon days, we would have described character education as the key component of the hidden curriculum, which is now being given a more prominent thrust.   In developing character education, a school/academy needs to reflect on six overarching aspects, which are as follows.

I       The six facets of character

(1)     What kind of school/academy are we?

  • How clearly do we articulate the kind of education we aspire to provide?
  • How do we ensure that all members of the school/academy community (e.g. staff, pupils, parents/carers, governing body) understand and share our aims?
  • How effectively do we create a sense of pride, belonging and identity in our school/academy?

(2)     What are our expectations of behaviour towards one another other?

  • Are we clear about the importance of discipline and good behaviour in school/academy life? How do we promote this understanding?
  • How well do we promote consideration and respect towards others (pupils and adults), good manners and courtesy?
  • How well do we promote a range of positive character traits among pupils?

(3)     How well do our curriculum and teaching develop resilience and confidence?

  • Is our curriculum ambitious for our pupils? Does it teach knowledge and cultural capital which will open doors and give them confidence in wider society?
  • Is our curriculum logically organised and sequenced, including within subjects, and taught using effective pedagogy, so pupils gain a strong sense of progress and grow in confidence?

(4)     How good is our co-curriculum provision?

  • Does it cover a wide range across artistic, creative, performance, sporting, debating, challenge, team and individual etc. so all pupils can both, discover new interests and develop existing ones?
  • Do we make use of or promote local, national or international programmes or organisations? (e.g. uniformed organisations, Duke of Edinburgh, National Citizen Service etc.)
  • Is provision of high quality and does it challenge pupils and build expertise? Is participation sustained over time?
  • Are there ample opportunities for pupils to compete, perform etc., and is success acknowledged and celebrated?

(5)     How well do we promote the value of volunteering and service to others?

  • Are age-appropriate expectations of volunteering and service to others clearly established?
  • Are opportunities varied, meaningful, high-quality and sustained over time?
  • Do volunteering and service opportunities contribute to breaking down social barriers? Are they effective in making pupils civic-minded and ready to contribute to society?

(6)     How do we ensure that all our pupils benefit equally from what we offer?

  • Do we understand and reduce barriers to participation (e.g. cost, timing, location, logistics, confidence, parental support etc.)?
  • Do we enable young people from all backgrounds to feel as if they belong and are valued?
  • Is our provision, including our co-curricular provision, appropriately tailored both to suit and to challenge the pupils we serve?

Character education has been part of the educational landscape for aeons.  In the school development plan (SDP) it would be part and parcel of the vision and ethos of the school/academy.  To promote it, the governing board makes explicit the virtues and values it would wish the pupils, staff and to espouse. The government wants to give this greater prominence.

Linked to this, a school/academy will be fostering the spiritual, moral, social, and cultural (SMSC) development of pupils as well as prepare them for life in modern Britain. In its new framework, Ofsted will judge character education as part of pupils’ personal development.

II      The importance of grit and zest

Implicit in most of the above aspects of character education is good social interaction.  However, hidden in the questions is the requirement that pupils develop grit with zest. Someone described grit and zest as the lesser known cousins of character education.  Say the word “grit” and one conjures the imagery of someone grinding her/his teeth.  Zest, on the other hand, is allied to enthusiasm and energy that one exhibits when faced with difficult situations.  They are complementary and tied at the hip.

A good institution will be keen to ensure that children develop their talents to live whole and fulfilled lives – when pursuing their dreams – as well as wanting to make the world a better place.   They will not always succeed.  When they fail, we expect them to try and try again, as Robert the Bruce, the Scottish hero, did long ago when he was repeatedly defeated by the English.

Edward II of England was at war with Robert the Bruce, who led a great Scots army.   In six successive battles, Robert the Bruce lost to Edward II. He sought refuge in a lonely cave in the mountain after the sixth battle and listened to the rain outside the cave entrance, tired and sick at heart, ready to “give up the ghost”.   And then he saw a spider over his head trying to weave a web.   Six times the spider attempted to throw her thread from one edge of the cave wall to another and six times it failed.   “Poor thing,” cried Robert the Bruce.  “You, too, know what it’s like to fail six times in a row.”

But the spider did not lose hope and give up.   It tried a seventh time and succeeded in swinging herself upon the slender line.  The thread affixed itself to the cave wall and the spider built its web.  “Yes!” cried Bruce.  “I, too, will try a seventh time!”  With grit and zest, he gathered his dispirited troops together, told them of his plans and led his rejuvenated army to fight a seventh battle.  Edward II, who was determined to make Scotland a part of English, was forced to retreat.

Persistence does pay off.  In Samuel Beckett’s novella, Westward Ho, he writes: “Ever tried? Ever failed?  No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  Churchill, our World War II leader who had everything to lose against Hitler, said: “Success is not final. Failure not fatal.  It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Grit, sprinkled with zest, is about relishing the challenges and approaching them with enthusiasm.  How can we make this possible for the pupils?

  • First, make pupils believe that they can succeed even when they think they will fail and even if they fail on the first few tries.
  • Second, egg the pupils on to aim for perfection, i.e. not being satisfied with the first effort, even though it may be a successful one. In all subjects there is scope for developing increasing mastery. One does not have to be bad to get better!
  • Demonstrate to the pupils that what you are asking them to do is meaningful.
  • Make learning fun.
  • Apprise them of instances in history (like the one about Robert the Bruce) that will grip their attention and from which they can learn.
  • Encourage pupils to take risks and to treat success and failure even-handedly.
  • Let pupils know that you, as an adult, also fail and demonstrate positively to them what you do when this does happen.

III     Closing Thought

Character education is not statutory.  However, we neglect it at our peril. When promoted, it acts as a catalyst improving the quality of education, helping pupils progress and achieve well, prepares them for their futures and helps them live better and more fulfilled lives.

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