Sir John Dunford OBE, Chair, Whole Education
We warmly welcome Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s latest £3.5 million fund for developing character in schools. And it is far from a one-off. Just last week, Morgan awarded £4.8 million to character-building military schemes for schools, the same day as Tristram Hunt announced that “stronger character equals higher standards” at a conference on character run by Demos. There is clear evidence of cross-party consensus, and with the EEF funding-based seal of approval, character looks set to be more than just the House of Commons’ latest buzzword; it is developing an impact evidence base. So whether you talk about grit or resilience, independence or emotional intelligence, the message is clear: it is no longer okay for schools to just be ‘exam factories’ – the definition of success has broadened – and about time too.
If national progress on developing student character has been hampered in the past by nervousness about how tangible and teachable ‘character’ is, that has not stopped schools making great strides. We agree with Nicky Morgan that, “excellent teachers already produce well-rounded pupils”. Whole Education schools have been doing this for years, and we have long advocated the ‘with/and approach’: with the right skills, students will achieve academically and be ready to face challenges beyond their GCSEs.
School 21 was mentioned in the recent government press release – this character framework and wellbeing curriculum form strong foundations for reflective conversations throughout every school day, linked to classroom learning objectives as well as to the behaviour and rewards system. At Shenley Brook End School in Milton Keynes, discussion is around skills rather than character: the TENSILE framework identifies seven skills (teamwork, expression, numeracy, solving problems, independence, literacy and enquiry) that are embedded in lessons and given curriculum time to ensure they are expressed meaningfully to students. At Sawston Village College in Cambridgeshire, the ASPIRE framework identifies core habits and behaviours that students and staff have agreed they want to practise (being achieving, self-motivated, positive, independent, respectful, engaged).
In these – and other – Whole Education schools, the impact on students comes through these frameworks being understood and regarded with the same seriousness as academic achievement. It doesn’t matter if your language fits that of other schools. Whether you call it developing character, skills or useful habits, and whatever your framework looks like, what matters is that you have a shared language within the school community, so that teachers and students can discuss progress on what are often hard-to-measure outcomes.
But if ‘character’ outcomes are difficult to measure (and they notoriously are), what’s the incentive for staff and students to put their attention in this area? With its rise in importance will come an inevitable attempt to quantify progress – and we need to be proactive to make sure this is done well, rather than it becoming another meaningless, time-wasting exercise for teachers and students alike to resent.
Advances have already been made in measuring the progress in character-related areas. Swavesey Village College has a well-established ‘pledges’ scheme – all students are expected to reach at least a bronze award for fulfilling pledges in seven areas (participation, leadership, environment, diversity, giving, excellence, service). These achievements are often achieved outside lesson time, but are recorded and monitored with tutors, and discussed alongside academic achievements in termly monitoring meetings. Taking this approach and applying it to primary, All Saints Junior School in Fleet has developed its own pledges scheme, and a framework whereby each student has to complete eight ‘Steps to Awesomeness’ (appreciation, courage, exercise, goals, kindness, participation, positivity and service) in order to achieve their bronze, silver or gold award. As there are clear actions that Swavesey and All Saints students can carry out in order to achieve their pledges, they can monitor and discuss their progress towards their goals easily.
We might also look outside schools for ways to monitor achievements. One of Whole Education’s partner organisations, Makewaves, has been working with mental health specialists to accredit young people’s character development with digital badges: over a thousand students have gained NHS School Nurse badges, earned by showing awareness of a range of mental and physical health issues, from how to reduce stress to the way flu spreads.
At Whole Education, we are really excited to have character education at the forefront of the national agenda and look forward to working with our network schools and partners to find ways of cementing impact in this area.