Focus on exams 'hinders development of character' in British school children

Two new reports by the University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues have found that moral character is being squeezed out of children’s education.

The reports, Character Education in UK Schools and The Good Teacher: Understanding Virtues in Practice, call for moral virtues to be put at the heart of British education.

According to the Jubilee Centre’s research, it is possible to cultivate good moral virtues in children, such as honesty, self-discipline, fairness, courage and gratitude. Furthermore, a school pupil’s ability to demonstrate these qualities can lead to a flourishing life, as well as improved performance in the classroom.

But the Character Education in UK Schools report reveals that 80% of school teachers feel that schools’ focus on academic attainment is hindering the development of students’ characters.

According to the report, many British children struggle to identify good moral judgements when faced with scenarios that require virtues such as honesty, courage and self-discipline.

With more than half of the school pupils surveyed failing to identify good moral judgements when responding to moral dilemmas, there is growing concern that teachers are not being given the time or the tools to teach students the difference between right and wrong.

The research also shows that, contrary to popular opinion, children who say they do sport do not demonstrate better moral judgement. Those doing music or choir (48%), drama (48%) or charity work (50%) were better able to make good moral judgements.

Despite 60% of British teachers reporting that they teach a subject relating to their students’ personal development and many considering moral education to be an integral part of their job, only 33% of teachers have had any specific training to support students in this area.

Many teachers who took part in the study, which examines the views of over 10,000 students and 255 teachers, recommended that schools provide more ‘free space’ where students could be themselves, without having to think about exam scores.

The Good Teacher report found that over a third (37%) of school teachers in the study believe that they do not have enough time to do their job to a standard they believe is right. Many point to the impact of increasing workloads and the narrow focus on exams and inspections.

According to teacher educators interviewed by researchers, British training courses spend little time reflecting on the teaching of moral virtues, because the focus is always on meeting Teachers Standards and on the technical aspects of teaching practice.

The research also finds that there is a positive attitude towards teaching moral character within the education sector. Most British school teachers consider moral education to be an integral part of their job.

Professor James Arthur, Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, said: ‘While it has been hugely encouraging to see both major political parties in Britain back the need for character education in recent months, more needs to be done to empower teachers to achieve what they came into teaching to do: to develop the whole child.

‘Academic attainment is, of course, important, but the moral character of a child matters more. Research shows that a good grasp of moral virtues, such as kindness, honesty and courage, can help children to flourish as human beings, and can also lead to improvements in the classroom.

‘And that level of understanding doesn’t just happen; it needs to be nurtured and encouraged, both in school and at home.

‘That is why the Jubilee Centre is recommending a review of character education within teacher education courses and is calling for more time for teachers to pay attention to issues of character in the classroom.’

ENDS

Notes to editors

  • The Character Education in UK Schools report is co-authored by Dr David Walker, Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. It is based on interviews with 10,000 students and 255 teachers. Read the full report
  • The Good Teacher report is co-authored by Dr Sandra Cooke, Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. It is based on an interview and questionnaire-based study of over 500 British school teachers, trainee teachers and teacher educators. Read the full report. 
  • The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues is a world-leader in rigorous academic research into character education. The Centre was founded in 2012 by Professor James Arthur. Based at the University of Birmingham, it has a dedicated team of 30 academics, who specialise in a range of disciplines: philosophy, psychology, education, theology and sociology. The Jubilee Centre operates on the basis that teaching good character, which can be demonstrated through moral virtues such as honesty, self-control, fairness, and respect, is possible and practicable. It is about equipping children and adults with the ability to make the right decisions. The Centre works in partnership with schools and national professional bodies on a range of projects that contribute to a renewal of character and values in individuals and in society.