What is character education and why is it important?

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by Pete Last, Headmaster of Kingsley School
Character-Education

Is it more important for your child to achieve a large number of high quality GCSE and A-level grades or is it more important for them to develop and sustain a good character?

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This is a very interesting question for parents to consider. My wife and I have three children, all now in their twenties and entering the world of work. Their GCSE and A level results have of course affected the journeys they have followed and were, for example, a major factor in influencing what they studied at university and where they studied. But as a Dad, by far the most important thing for me is that my children are of good character – that they are honest, reliable, determined, resilient, kind and respectful. This matters much more to me than their exam results ever did.

My view is that schools should develop children’s character, not just their ability to pass. There is a lot of talk in many schools at the moment about the importance of character. Most people would probably agree with the assertion that it is important for us to ‘have a good character’, even if they are not sure exactly what this might mean. So is good character something that can only be caught, or can it also be taught?

One of the most influential sources of useful research and information about character education is the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, based in the School of Education at Birmingham University. The Centre’s website contains a wealth of research and practical information and materials for any individual or school wishing to develop how they teach character education. Reading the research it is clear that the Centre has established the view that good character can indeed be taught and that schools, colleges and universities have a key role to play in the development of character.

David Carr wrote in 2007 ‘it is often said that we remember teachers as much for the kinds of people they were than for anything they may have taught us’. Does this resonate with you? It certainly does with me – I cannot remember the actual taught content of many lessons I attended when I was at school but I can most definitely remember the teachers who made learning fun and who had an impact on my developing personality. What a privilege it is to be a teacher and what a responsibility teachers have to help shape the character development of the children they teach.

As Headmaster of Kingsley SchoolI have lots of conversations with prospective and current parents about their children and the dreams and aspirations that the parents have for them. For some parents, it would appear at first glance that exam success is the ‘be all and end all’ of what they want the school to provide, but it is usually only a matter of moments before the conversation has broadened out to include important aspects of the children’s development such as their happiness, integrity and character. 

As a school, we know it is possible to teach character because we do it every day. We encourage our pupils to try to develop a growth mindset whereby their attitude towards things they are finding difficult is not ‘this is impossible, so I’m going to give up’ but rather ‘this is really hard but I’m going to persevere until I can do it’. We see this in the classroom when pupils are struggling to master a tricky aspect of the subjects they are studying; in our PE and games lessons when pupils are struggling to master a new technique or skill; in our boarding houses when pupils are finding it difficult to be away from their families and settle in to new surroundings; and when we take pupils out on Duke of Edinburgh expeditions when the physical and mental challenges facing groups of young people can appear to be daunting. We see it every day in a myriad of ways throughout all age groups from our nursery children right through to our sixth form.

It is wonderful to watch pupils push themselves in such a wide variety of settings and, more often that not, surprise themselves with what they are capable of achieving. Even when they don’t succeed, as a school we always endeavour to be there to pick them up, dust them down and set them on their way again, just as I remember doing so vividly when my own children were first learning to ride their bikes without stabilisers. Sometimes it hurts to fail, but the true test of character is whether you are strong enough to get back on your bike!

Carr, D. (2007) ‘Character in Teaching’, British Journal of Educational Studies, 55(4): 369–389.

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