Character Matters

views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Now, more than ever, it is character – who a person is and how they understand their duty to their neighbour and community – that should be the determining factor in evaluating student success.”

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20th May each year is national ‘Thank a Teacher day’. While always important, this year’s day probably mattered more to most, coming as it did at the heart of a global pandemic in which education had been turned on its head as educators across the world did their best to continue supporting those in their care.

Whilst grateful for the efforts that enabled the system to continue to manage, we now move to a phase of operation with greater permanence. This ‘new normal’ sees students across the country returning to their classrooms, likely filled with more than the usual amount of excitement and apprehension that accompanies their return to school after the summer break.

The same will be true of teachers and school leaders, keen to return to a more conventional setting, but conscious of the uncertain backdrop against which they are being asked to create a stable learning environment in which pupils can flourish.

Now, more than ever, it is character – who a person is and how they understand their duty to their neighbour and community – that should be the determining factor in evaluating student success.

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues has long advocated for such a model, setting out its approach most clearly in A Framework for Character Education in Schools, now in its third edition.

Schools should aim to develop confident and compassionate students, who are effective contributors to society, successful learners and responsible citizens. Students also need to grow in their understanding of what is good or valuable and in their ability to protect and advance that good.

Character is not achieved within a vacuum and, while parental role modelling is paramount, cannot be developed as effectively at a social distance. Moreover, teachers are important role models for young people’s character development, something actively encouraged by parents and the general public. This means education, through school ethos and the example of teachers, cannot help but influence certain moral values.

Individuals need to grow up within a culture, responding to the influences, values and traditions prevalent within it. Our activity in shaping our own and other people’s character is important. The early years of a child’s life and education are crucial as childhood socialisation is responsible for many of the virtues and vices that largely remain with us throughout our lives.

As former Secretary of State for Education Baroness Nicky Morgan notes in our recently published co-authored book ‘Educating for a Characterful Society, much of the current work on character in the UK can trace its modern origins to the response to the summer riots of 2011.

‘The final report of the Riots Communities and Victims Panel concluded that “The key to avoiding future riots is to have communities that work… where parents and schools ensure children develop the values, skills and character to make the right choices at crucial moment;” The importance of building personal resilience and the importance of character in making the right choices in these particular flashpoint situations was made clear.’

The importance of building personal resilience and the importance of character in making the right choices in these particular flashpoint situations was made clear.'

Now, while it is true that we may not face the same kind of unrest of that summer, almost a decade on, the uncertainty and the challenge facing our young people is just as stark.

Character is often cited approvingly by teachers, parents and politicians. Yet often, each has their own, differing understanding of what character is. Such diverse conceptions and assumptions have resulted in an ambiguity that means character formation, education, and development remain controversial terms. The work of the Jubilee Centre seeks to address this by bringing these groups together to create a shared understanding.

But society’s need for people of good character is a constant. We have seen in recent months that our current focus on attainment lacks the flexibility to do what is best by our students. There is a definite and important place for exams but when these are unavailable, other suitable measures must be put in place. If these measures are predicated on an inherent negative expectation, they are then contrary to the potential of a virtue-led approach and its ability to create a flourishing society. Trust is broken with any system that willingly predicts students U grades simply because of their postcode rather than the grades of those teachers who know them best.

As Sir Anthony Seldon, former Master of Wellington College and Vice-Chancellor at the University Of Buckingham, noted recently in The Sunday Times:

‘Exams tell a truth about a young person. An important truth. But they do not tell the whole truth.’

The research of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues is helping pupils to understand what will bring them a sense of fulfilment and happiness in later life, and helping educators to feel greater confidence as moral exemplars. It challenges those that develop and deliver policy to look beyond attainment and create more holistic metrics by which to evaluate young people. 

You can’t measure character, but when it is there, it is impossible to miss. That is why we are helping people across the world to make the right choices, at the right time, for the right reasons.

That is why we are teaching a generation that character matters, so our children can excel regardless of what life brings.

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