Character building: a key ingredient of 21st century education?

Rosemary Dewan

Rosemary Dewan is the CEO of the Human Values Foundation which promotes the importance of teaching human values in schools. Since 1995 it has been providing practical, cross-curricular programmes for personal development and behaviour management, integrating SMSC, PSHE education, Citizenship, PLTS and SEAL.

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What do we mean by character building and why is there ever greater emphasis on it as a necessary part of a child’s development and education?

A dictionary definition of ‘character’ is “the collective qualities or characteristics, especially mental and moral that distinguish a person or thing”. What are those qualities and why are they important?

Consider for a moment, what we look for when choosing our friends and our partners, be they ones with whom we wish to share our lives or different ventures, work-related or otherwise - and people we elect to represent us in public office. While academic or formal qualifications may be a part of the equation, personal attributes and attractive qualities are likely to be the differentiating and deciding factors. Good, strong characters can enrich our lives enormously whilst weak or bad characters can have devastating effects on them.

Powerful influences and repercussions from an early age

When a baby comes into the world, what do we hope for him or her? Health? Happiness? Success? We each have our own interpretation of what these mean but if we aspire to creating and nurturing positive life chances and opportunities for desirable outcomes, then it’s important that we strive to ensure the child is continuously experiencing supportive, good quality influences, especially during the tender, pre-school years.

Naturally, the development of a child’s character is profoundly shaped by his or her parents or other early carers and hence the increasingly recognised imperative for skilful, informed, confident parenting and, if a child is at risk, early intervention to prevent long-term damage. As time goes by, teachers and other influential adults play significant parts in the process of children developing positive character traits.

Are we being sufficiently prepared and trained to undertake these roles well? Some of the young winners of the Princess Diana Awards exhibit just what can be achieved with inspired character development.

August 2011 riots - the importance of character

In March 2012 a final report was issued with the findings of the Riots Communities and Victims Panel that investigated various aspects of the disturbances, which took place in several pockets in England in August 2011. The panelists consider that one of the essential requirements to avoiding future riots is to have communities that work, one feature of which is that the parents and schools ensure children develop the values, skills and character to make the right choices at crucial moments.

The panel members describe how they met people who had been convicted of various riot-related offences and several people who had suffered considerable disadvantage but who chose not to get involved last August. When ascertaining what led those young people to making the right choice in the heat of the moment, the significance of character emerged. The report outlines a number of attributes that together form character, including self-discipline, application, the ability to defer gratification and resilience in recovering from setbacks and commented that young people, who consciously work on developing character, will be best placed to make the most of their lives, including their employment prospects.

The role of schools in character building

The Riots Communities and Victims Panel’s recommendations include a new approach to building character as an integral part of school life. In respect of personal resilience, there is a call for schools to publish policies for building the character of their pupils and regularly assessing pupils’ strength of character. Also advocated is character building as a central part of the review of Personal, Social and Economic education and for Ofsted to undertake, from October 2013, a thorough thematic review into how primary and secondary schools build character in their pupils.

Character capabilities developed during values education

Values-based schools, already living and breathing a values consciousness that permeates the whole school and all that takes place within it, know the uplifting, transformative effects not only on their pupils and their characters but also their achievements, inter-personal relationships and acceptance of responsibility for their behaviour. Additionally, they appreciate the favourable impacts experienced on the quality of teaching, learning and leadership – with the benefits felt by all school staff, whatever their role, along with parents and carers in the home environment.

Evidence from around the world shows that good, explicit values education provides a rewarding approach to character development as it engages individuals in an holistic way, gradually equipping participants with the understanding, confidence and skills to enable them to live as empowered, resilient, informed members of society. It leads to a greater understanding of oneself and others as it embraces the emotional, intellectual, spiritual, physical and social aspects of our makeup. With teachers’ appropriate professional learning and application, including consistent, congruent modelling of positive values and providing safe, supportive classroom environments, pupils have the opportunity of exploring and reflecting upon a wide range of important and relevant issues in local, national and global contexts. From an early age, children can begin to consider real-life situations and realise the potential ramifications of choices they make on a day-to-day basis or may make later on, at different stages in their lives.

Managing the values education journey

For both facilitators and pupils, the process can sometimes uncover fears and matters that need sensitive handling and may take time and understanding to resolve. However, as with other areas of growth and learning, participants often express their delight at obstacles they have overcome and the changes they observe in themselves, their relationships and performance. Often not only pupils but teachers and other members of staff, along with parents and carers, are elated by the sense of wellbeing derived from the values education guidance and practices and the beneficial changes they feel empowered to make to strengthen and improve different areas of their lives.

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