Written by Selena Whitehead – Education Manager
Schools across the world are in a state of emergency following the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Staff are exhausted and are faced with an increasingly challenging environment. We still can’t say that we are post-pandemic, as many schools are having to deal with the repercussions of new vaccination regulations and multiple absences.
However, now more than ever, the time is right to fully embed character in schools. To create a thriving school body and ethos, the language of character needs to be embedded across the entire pastoral system and the curriculum. By doing so, students will begin to use character to self-identify both their strengths and the areas they need to develop. Schools need not fear a trade-off between academic achievement and character. Many schools which have taken the whole-school approach to character report improved pupil attendance and performance, and an enhanced school ethos.
What is Character Education?
“Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”Martin Luther King Jr.
To implement character education well, it is vital to have a good understanding of what character education is. With no agreed standard definition “character education can be broadly described as an approach to developing a set of values, attitudes, skills and behaviours that are thought to support young people’s development and to contribute to their success in school and in adult life” *.
Different frameworks exist for understanding character education. For example, The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues in Birmingham adopted an Aristotle virtues-led approach. Another is the VIA’s Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues (Peterson and Seligman).
Here at Amazing People Schools, we have developed our own approach based on the research of over 500 amazing people from history, and distilling what we see as their defining character strengths. Whichever framework schools decide to adopt will depend on their own school ethos and values, however a study of schools which have fully embraced character clearly shows that a whole-school approach to embedding it is essential.
The language of character is the golden thread that binds schools together
All schools have their own values and ethos, and depending on the school’s approach, these are relayed to students to a greater or lesser extent. In addition, we have new words that are now common parlance, such as ‘catch-up curriculum’, social distancing, lockdown and so on. The time is ripe then to seize the moment and make character strengths the focus of this new language. What we learn from schools which have truly embedded character is that making the language of character explicit is a game-changer. When schools really take on character, this strengths-based language is then used across the whole school.
How can my school embed character education?
- Assemblies – senior leaders focus on a given character strength, what is meant by that strength, how it contributes to wellbeing. They use examples from the life of an inspirational role model from history and finish by asking reflective questions to the student body, as to how they can develop the given character strength in the coming days.
- Cross-curricular lessons – staff are encouraged to introduce new topics by leading with the character strengths that are sought. For example, ‘Today, I am looking for you to demonstrate curiosity in your questions and research.’ Or ‘Perseverance will be required as we attempt this task and if at first if you don’t succeed, optimism and resilience will be needed to help you continue.’
- Whole school behaviour system – a strengths-approach should underpin the behaviour system so that young people know what is expected of them and the strengths they need to develop to improve. ‘Did you show kindness this morning when you threw the book’? Equally, getting young people to identify when they need to show perseverance to complete a challenge and when they need to show adaptability, is truly a gift for life. Continuing this emphasis on the language of character across the rewards system and ensuring a balanced focus on both academic achievements and character development, is key to its success.
Have any schools successfully embedded character education using a whole school approach?
One such school to fully embed this language is Colmore Junior School, which has received the Association of Character Education’s School of Character Plus kitemark. Assessors noted that:
“The shared language around character that is used between pupils, teachers and parents seems effortless at Colmore Junior School. But this is testament to the extensive involvement of the whole school community in the development of its 7 principles, which underpin its character provision. These principles are consistently integrated across core curriculum, an innovative reward system that effectively involves parents, and an expansive and inclusive co-curricular offer. Pupils of all ages eloquently talk about good character, and confidently use a broad vocabulary relating to virtues and values.”
School attainment does not suffer and may well improve with character focus
Many governments have decided that the areas to focus on following Covid, are the undeniable gaps in academic achievement. But, will doing so without a focus on character and wellbeing be in the students’ or schools’ best interests?
A study of schools which have fully embraced character at their core shows that there is no ‘either-or’ dichotomy, which some schools seem to fear. It is not the case that embedding character is done at the expense of academic achievement. Rather, when schools weave the golden thread of character through their pastoral system and their curriculum offering, then students not only flourish personally, but academic achievement also increases, and schools report improved attendance and behaviour.
Steyning Grammar School for example, have for several years, only reported (for years 7 – 9) using Teacher Assessed Achievement Characteristic Averages to assess students development. They have found this to be a better measure of GCSE success than any assessments.
Bede Academy, noted by the Association of Character Education, exemplify the duality of taking a character strengths-based approach alongside academic achievement.
“Bede Academy, as part of the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, aims to be a ‘Character First’ Academy. We are rightly pleased to have been recognised as a place of learning that places primary importance on the development of our character (for both students and staff) as much as on academic excellence.“
Developing character is closely linked to supporting wellbeing
Wellbeing has been thrust into the limelight during the pandemic like never before. Social media and education forums are, quite rightly, discussing the psychological and emotional impact of loss, lockdown, separation from friends, lack of routine, increased stressed levels of adults and other effects on the mental health of our young people. There is increased awareness of the need for all of us to regularly practise taking exercise, eating good food and ensuring we get sufficient quality sleep. Some of us go further, recognising the benefits of mindfulness, spending time in nature and maintaining our social interactions. All of these aspects are undeniably important and young people should be made aware of them. However, developing character and understanding its links with wellbeing can often be mistakenly overlooked.
Research shows us that practising an ‘attitude of gratitude’ actually increases our own happiness. Actively thinking about and noting those things that we are thankful for, can help staff and students see things from a new perspective. Developing creativity by using our imagination through art, music or other creative subjects, releases feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins. Acts of kindness can increase self-esteem, empathy, compassion and improve mood. This all leads to a reduction in blood pressure and a release of cortisol (a stress hormone) making us healthier. Here at Amazing People Schools, a chart is used to easily outline the links between developing character strengths and wellbeing. These links are highlighted across the teaching resources and assemblies.
2022 is the year to embed character education in your school
As schools begin to navigate the post pandemic ‘new normal’, embedding character education on a whole school level should be a priority and will provide students with another important element in their kitbag of wellbeing strategies. Amazing People Schools is here to help your school embed character education at this incredibly important time. Contact us for free access for your school today.
* Leading Character Education in Schools: Case Study Report; Matt Walker,
David Sims, Kelly Kettlewell
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