Why classroom character and virtues should be in Justine Greening’s in tray

Over the coming weeks and months, it will be interesting to see how the new Education Secretary Justine Greening lays out her vision for schools.

Ms Greening’s previous incumbent, Nicky Morgan, stressed the importance of “building character and resilience in every child” in the White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere, published in March. The paper noted that such traits not only boost employment and social opportunities but also underpin “academic success, happiness and wellbeing” – qualities that can be a factor in an individual making an active contribution to society.

It is a fundamental conviction of the Jubilee Centre that an over-emphasis on exam grades and league tables to the detriment of character leaves our young people badly served for both their time in the classroom and for life outside the school gates. The Jubilee Centre’s A Framework for Character Education in Schools emphasises that education should be concerned not only with performance virtues but also moral virtues – those virtues such as courage, gratitude and compassion that allow young people to live a truly flourishing life.

It now falls on Ms Greening to deliver on the Government’s pledge to promote character education including the allocation of “significant additional funding,” outlined in the White Paper, to support secondary schools to “develop new provision for all of their pupils.” There are proposals to extend the school day so students can benefit from a wider array of activities than those offered purely via the academic timetable. It will be vital to look at the evidence of what works in character education to make sure this funding is spent wisely.

The Jubilee Centre’s Schools of Virtue project aims to highlight the benefits of placing character and virtues at the heart of school life and embedded within the curriculum. Central to the approach of this understanding of character education is that it can be “caught” through the school culture and ethos, as well as “taught” in the classroom. What makes the project distinctive is the holistic approach that we are taking, looking at both “taught” and “caught” methods and how each creates an impact within a school.

The project is capturing teachers’ views on what works in character education, answering, for example, how has their school implemented character education? What impact has it had?

We are also looking at the views of students, to explore the impact of a virtue-based outlook in the timetable, asking what virtues do young people think are most important? How do students respond to moral dilemmas? What do students want to see in their ideal school?

The project involves three beacon schools in Birmingham; one is a primary and other two are secondary schools. They include the University of Birmingham School, where the school ethos and provision is underpinned by character education and enrichment. By the time we report our findings, we hope to shed new light on what a successful school committed to character education could look like. We will also be looking at the impact of different interventions to support students to develop their character.

Teaching interventions will be phased in across the three beacon schools with a completion date of July 2017. One of the interventions will look at the development of good sense when using the internet. Young people face an increasingly bewildering set of online moral dilemmas, from cyber bullying to plagiarism. This intervention will explore how students can be supported to identify the moral dimensions of problems they may face in our digitally connected age.

We hope that we can learn from these schools, who have placed a focus on developing students’ characters at their heart; show “what works” in both “caught” and “taught” approaches to character development; and continue to build on the growing evidence-base supporting positive character development in schools.

Emily Burn, Research Associate, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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