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August 2017

Developing Character Skills in Schools – A Teacher’s Response

The teaching profession’s reaction to the recent publication of the Department of Education’s (DfE) report Developing Character Skills in Schools can best be described as mixed. The survey, the DfE’s first foray into the field of empirical research on character education provision, was completed by 880 education institutes, and the report has produced some interesting findings with some clear next steps for character education provision.

Whilst the DfE have not launched the report with any degree of fanfare, the report’s publication has still caught the attention of teachers and education stakeholders. Reaction to the report can be categorised into three distinct responses: 1. A positive reaction from such stakeholders as the Jubilee Centre; acknowledging a genuine increase in character education provision within English schools; 2. An apprehensive reaction (TES, Schools Week) highlighting positive gains, but putting more focus on the fact that there is still work that needs to be done for character to be fully embedded across curricula and integrated in school ethos; 3. A negative reaction; with some teachers using social media to argue that character education is the responsibility of parents, and that this is just another ‘fad’ to fit into an already overwhelmed and over-crowded curriculum.

The findings of the report suggest that reactions 1 and 2 both have some merit, and can perhaps be seen as 2 sides of the same coin. As a profession, we should not get carried away with such positive statistics as 89% of schools do use subject lessons to develop character traits, just as we should not despair when we read that one in six (17%) of schools say that they have a formalised plan or policy in place for character education provision. Both previous and current research conducted by the Jubilee Centre has shown that interest in, and provision for effective character education is on the rise with all stakeholders, but that there is still a long way to go before it is fully embedded into the majority of UK schools. The often contradictory findings within the DfE report – 97% of schools are seeking to promote desirable character traits among their students, whilst only 54 % of schools are familiar with the term ‘character education’ – show that in the current climate, the primary aim of anyone actively seeking to champion character education in schools should be to ensure that teachers are familiar with the term, what it means, and what meaningful character education provision entails. Character education can look very different between schools, with no single blueprint model prescribed by the Jubilee Centre, other than that the overriding principle behind it must be universal. In the Jubilee Centre’s A Framework for Character Education in Schools, character education is described as the ‘explicit and implicit educational activities that help young people develop positive personal strengths called virtues’, and that ‘character education is about helping students grasp what is ethically important in situations and how to act for the right reasons, such that they become more autonomous and reflective in practice of virtue.’ Once more schools become aware, and take ownership of this definition – the Framework has already been distributed to all English secondary schools, and will soon be disseminated to primary schools – school leaders will be able to plan and put policies in place to specifically develop the character traits of their pupils, explicitly and implicitly across their school communities.

The third reaction to the DfE report, I am sure, is not aimed at criticising character education per se, but at the profession as a whole, and situation teachers perceive themselves to be in. An increased workload, new government assessments, and budget cuts have left many within the profession frustrated and angry. The idea of introducing a ‘new’ component to an already-creaking workload will inevitably be met by detractors, but this is where the misunderstanding of character education is most evident. Character education is not a new ‘fad’ suddenly dropped upon us by the government; it has been a part of teaching for centuries and, when properly thought out, is the backbone of education. We teachers all want to develop the next Pulitzer Prize winner, the next great mathematician, or the next Olympic gold medallist, but these individuals will be the exceptions, and when we dig deeper, at the heart of good teaching is the desire to develop every individual so that they can become thriving members of society. This is the goal of character education. It is not a new subject to be squeezed into a 30 minute slot on a Friday afternoon. It permeates all lessons, all subjects, and the whole school community through implicit and explicit means. It is not only the responsibility of parents to ensure that their children grow up to be flourishing individuals, but it is our role as teachers to ensure character education is actively sought in schools, so this development can continue there.

The Developing Character Skills in Schools report shows that there are lots of positive things happening in schools, but it also highlights that now is not the time to sit back and be content with what has already been achieved. There is still a lot to be done so we must continue to make more teachers and schools aware of the benefits that a formal focus on character education can have, not just in terms of attainment and employability, but recognising, as the DfE do, that making a positive contribution to society is a good in itself.

Michael Fullard (QTS), Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

New DfE Report on Developing Character Skills Acknowledges the Importance of a Moral Compass

It is gratifying for us working in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues to see how the newly-published Summary Report by the Department for Education on ‘Developing Character Skills in Schools’ (August, 2017) cites our work repeatedly as providing leading theoretical insights into character education in UK schools. Kudos for work well done is always to be welcomed and cherished. However, more important than any ‘symbolic capital’ or ‘impact evidence’ gained by this report is its substantive content, and how well it aligns with Jubilee Centre conceptualisations.

There has been a tendency in Whitehall and Westminster to understand ‘character’ and ‘character education’ quite narrowly and instrumentally – often modelling it on controversial US approaches that aim at ‘fixing individual kids’ by providing them with performative skills to enhance educational achievement and general ‘success’ in life. So while lip service has increasingly been paid in UK political circles to the development of the character of the whole child, it has been difficult to translate it into anything amounting the neo-Aristotelian emphasis highlighted by the Jubilee Centre on the intrinsic value of good character and how it cannot be untethered from the internalisation of moral virtues. Notably missing from previous DfE documents has also been any explicit conceptualisation of what ‘development’ means psychologically or educationally in the context of policies on the development of character skills.

It is, therefore, a cause for great relief to witness the new document’s careful outlining of what character education is, what it aims for, and how it can be enacted through policy and practice on the ground. Many of the designators chosen in this report will be music to the ears of neo-Aristotelian sympathisers. Talk of ‘well-rounded, grounded citizens’, their ideal ‘contribution to society’, and their ‘social and emotional’ as well as their performative skills takes us well beyond the narrow focus on grade attainment and employability that we have come to expect from official policy documents in the past. The crowning glory of this document is its insistence on the need to ‘instil pupils with a moral compass…in understanding and interacting with other people’. This is a leaf taken straight out of the Jubilee Centre book – but again it is not the provenance of the argument that matters but its substantive content. For anyone who thinks that character development is about more than just self-confidence, communication skills, grit and resilience, this focus on the need for a ‘moral compass’ will strike a chord. The aim of character education cannot just boil down to the need to cultivate the resilience of the repeat offender. We must ask not only what character is, but also what it is for.

The new report makes it abundantly clear that while the extrinsic benefits of character education for improving academic attainment and employability matter, what justifies such education in the end is the cultivation of traits that help children make a positive contribution to UK society by their flourishing both as individuals and as citizens.

While the report contains a lot of useful conceptualisations – ‘GPSs’ for educators and parents lost in the labyrinth of confusing terminologies – it also offers significant statistical data about school approaches to character education. On a positive note, 97% of UK schools surveyed seek to promote desirable character traits among their pupils. On a more negative note, perhaps, only 54% were familiar with the term ‘character education’. Command of terminology is not as important, however, as good intentions – and there seems to be no shortage of the latter in UK schools.

Given that almost half of schools are not familiar with the relevant core concepts and conceptualisations means that there is considerable work left to do for the Jubilee Centre and other promoters of character development – the flourishing of the whole child – in UK schools. However, the new report paves the way for significant progress in this area, driven by an explicit policy agenda that can now also be backed up by our new Framework, giving schools an easy access to the vocabulary needed to talk more productively about the goals that they already aspire to seek.

 

Kristján Kristjánsson is Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

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