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