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Reformed characters?

It’s probably not sensible to get too exercised about policy announcements from government ministers at the moment. Given the likely longevity of the current government, it feels akin to rearranging the ornaments on the mantelpiece while fleeing a burning house. However, the recent announcement from Damien Hinds that a ‘character panel’ has been appointed to explore the ‘best ways for young people to build character and resilience’ caught the eye. Initial responses seemed to broadly welcome the fact that the DfE were taking a broader view of the purpose of education, and it was positive that the panel had a range of representatives, many of whom could be trusted to represent the views of the profession.

In the launch, Mr Hinds explained that ‘the reason character and resilience matter so much to me is that they are key to social mobility.’ It’s the sort of statement that has people nodding in agreement, but closer examination raises a few questions. Most importantly, if character is the key to upward social mobility, that seems to imply that inequity in our society is a problem of poor attitude by those at the bottom of the pile, rather than access to opportunity, wealth and family support. If only people would buck their ideas up, they could climb the greasy pole to wealth and success. The few high-profile successes don’t take away the fact that for many young people, the cards that life has dealt them make this extraordinarily difficult.

However, given that strength of character is a good thing in itself, it seems like a positive move to support programmes to develop it in school. Despite the fact that it’s a hugely difficult task to define what character is, it’s undoubtedly true that experiences at school will help shape it. The panel are not starting with a blank sheet of paper of course. There is a helpful list of activities that help develop character, divided into sport, creativity, performing, volunteering & membership, and experience of the world of work. Examples cited include rock climbing, yoga, litter-picking, choir, film making and public speaking.

Now, these are fantastic activities, I am really excited about the prospect of an entitlement for pupils to take part in high quality enrichment activities, particularly for those who would simply not normally be able to access them. If this becomes part of the regular experience of young people, that will be a hugely positive step forward. I can see that investment in these activities, both financial and societal, could transform many young lives.

However, without being churlish, I’m just not convinced that it naturally follows that an exposure to one particular activity builds character any more than another activity. Why does film making build character more than maths for example? Why does debating build resilience more than playing a console game? Are we still in thrall to the Duke of Wellington’s famous aphorism that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton?

That is not to say that character and resilience can’t be developed and strengthened, and in fact I think that many schools are already doing it incredibly well, I just think it’s more complex than finding the right activity, and it will possibly take a greater commitment.

So how do you develop character and resilience? You need three things above all:

You need to know that someone’s got your back, whatever happens. That the adults around you care for you, not just because it’s their job, but because they like you and will always want the best for you. Young people need to fundamentally believe that they have value, and we show that in our daily interactions.

You also need to know that failure is not the end of the road, but a setback from which you can learn and become stronger. That no matter how many times things go wrong, or how badly you’ve messed up, there’s a way back. It doesn’t mean that failure is rewarded or accepted, just that it’s not the end of the road. This is not an abstract concept – we need to examine our attitude to curriculum options, to ability grouping, to permanent exclusion and show that no matter how badly you’ve messed up, you can have the opportunity to do better next time.

Finally, you need to really believe that a different future is possible. If you genuinely think that you are destined to fail no matter how hard you try, then keeping going isn’t so much a sign of a strong character as a sign of stupidity. Young people need role models who can show them how they overcame obstacles to achieve success, and we then need to help them draw up their own road map.

It’s our responsibility as the most influential adults outside of the family to model character, to recognize it and reward it. To make schools a place of safety, challenge and positivity, where young people believe that anything is possible. And if you get the chance to do Tae Kwan Do and orienteering as well, so much the better.

By Dr Heery

I'm the Executive Principal of the White Hills Park Trust, a current Ofsted Lead Inspector, former Head of both primary and secondary schools, and a former LA School Improvement Adviser, as well as being a practising teacher. I am interested in schools and school systems built on generous collaboration, collective responsibility and strong values.

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