Character Educator in Focus: Louise Simpson

Image Credit: SG Haywood Photography

Louise Simpson is Head of Exeter School and is currently in her second year of study on the MA Character Education. In this blog, Louise discusses Exeter School’s approach to character education.

Louise Simpson

Recently returned from 6 years of international headship in a large co-educational day school in São Paulo, I am delighted now to be in my third headship, in Exeter, in Devon. My career has taken me through seven independent schools, of all types; and my three headships – the first in a girls’ day school in London, part of the fabulous Girls Day School Trust, followed by the challenges and richness of Brazil – have brought me home to a wonderful school in a wonderful part of the country. 

My own focus on character education (albeit by another name) is probably most strongly rooted in my love of the outdoors and my involvement in the outdoor education activities which have been a key part of all the schools in which I have worked.  I am a great supporter of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme and have been involved in the expedition side of the scheme as a leader throughout my career.  In addition, as a youngster, I was very involved in Girl Guiding, and feel that there are many transferable aspects of character and development of virtues through both of these wonderful voluntary youth organisations.  I may not have known it was character education at the time, but I certainly benefited from these experiences when I was growing up and have continued to value them in my professional experiences. 

What does character education “look like” at Exeter School?

Being in this part of the country, with easy access to the outdoors, the coast, sea and the wilds of Dartmoor, adventurous activities form an important part of our co-curricular programme and are key parts of the holistic enrichment programme that all our pupils benefit from in terms of their character development.  We are very lucky also to have a gifted and committed staff body who have much to offer in so many areas; sports, music, drama, the arts in general offer a broad range of experiences in which pupils can develop their skills and in particular their performance virtues.  Our house-based pastoral subsystem, the chapel, and the chaplain, are key in the daily life of school (even though we are a secular school).  The chaplain’s reflections add a spiritual element, and this, aligned with our excellent, supportive pastoral care, our PSHE, mindfulness and community service and charitable activities allow pupils to develop civic virtues and the key caring virtues of compassion, gratitude and considerateness for example.  We encourage pupils to recognise how fortunate they are, and how they can contribute positively to the lives of others.  We also feel strongly that pupil voice is important in developing their character in school and the leadership opportunities that they have, for example as prefects or on the school council, are ways that they can develop an understanding of civic structures and the importance of contribution to a community, and understanding when others do not agree with your view.

What’s next?

In the future, we are looking to develop a set of whole school values and align these with our purpose, and our mission going forward.  This will be a big project and will involve the whole school community; ‘What makes an excellent Exonian?’ will be our question – and will help us to tease out and refine the direction of travel for character education in the future. 

What do you hope to achieve through studying on the MA Character Education? 

My journey in character education so far has been as ‘an enthusiastic amateur’.  I have been involved in character education without really knowing it, and I have been drawn to schools and to get involved with activities within them that are character based.  Studying the subject as an academic pursuit has been (and continues to be) fascinating and I have enjoyed exploring many topics which have taken me outside my comfort zone – especially in the philosophical and theoretical arena.  I hope that by completing the masters it will challenge my thinking about what a values or character led school might look like (in an ideal world) and help us to embed these key themes in a more integrated but also explicit way.  Against the current back drop of school standards and academic stresses for pupils, especially in the context of Covid-19, we have to value the enriching part of the education that we offer, and it is inevitable that by studying this explicitly, as a school we can be better placed to deliver the right kind of character education to support and develop our pupils to flourish in their lives beyond school.   As an educator, I firmly believe that this is what our role is – so I hope to be able to do this better.  I also think it is great for the school community to see the head of a school as a person who is continuously learning – certainly doing an MA programme demonstrates this!

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