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Viewpoint: How do you instil good character?

Children at a community garden Image copyright ALAMY

The teaching of good character in schools has been backed by the government. But just how do you go about that asks, Jonathan Birdwell, head of citizenship at think tank Demos.

Ask the average person on the street and they probably associate "good character" with traits like honesty, humility, responsibility and selflessness.

A friend or family member, a teacher or colleague, who would go out of their way to help others.

Ask about "bad character" and you'll get lying, corruption, and selfishness. Fifa officials. Criminals. Greedy bankers. Maybe even politicians.

But good character can also be used to describe someone who refrains from going to the pub in order to revise or finish their work project. It can be used to describe someone who works well in a team and sticks to a task until it's finished - or who is able to bounce back from life's setbacks.

Good character is increasingly seen as vital to success in school and work.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan wants schools to take the lead in developing the next generation of productive, civic-minded individuals by fostering "good character" among students. She's allocated £5m to programmes that develop character attributes like "resilience, self-confidence and respect".

This includes headline-grabbing programmes that will see ex-soldiers and top rugby coaches in schools teaching 'grit', hard work and integrity. For some, this return to character will be welcomed. For others, it will be seen as patronising and elitist.

This renewed focus on character is not because this generation of British young people lack the virtues of previous generations. Demos has written elsewhere about how perceptions that young people are lazy, selfish and apathetic are way off the mark.

Image copyright ALAMY

Rather, character is back because we now have solid evidence about just how important it is to our chances of success in life.

Study after study demonstrates the connection between character strengths and getting good grades. Nobel Prize-winning US economist James Heckman has shown that "performance virtues" like "conscientiousness" and "agreeableness" are more predictive of labour market success than IQ.

A recent report from the Institute for Education similarly found that self-control and self-regulation in childhood were associated with adult "mental health, life satisfaction and wellbeing, income and labour market outcomes, measures of physical health, obesity, smoking, crime and mortality".

The evidence suggests that character is not determined at birth, and that many virtues can be developed in schools - though not simply through studying for and taking exams.

This was emphasised in recent research from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues in 68 schools across the UK, which asked 10,000 students to give responses to moral dilemmas.

Overall, British students scored lower than their peers in the US and Taiwan, and were particularly poor about being able to explain why the right moral answer was correct.

Interestingly, the research found that there was no correlation between high levels of moral character among students, and the size of the school, whether it was private or state, the percentage of students achieving five GCSEs at grades A* to C, and the Ofsted grade.

What these schools did have in common was a school-wide ethos, embedded in everything the school does, and with teacher support. Their teachers were more likely to agree that they had time and flexibility to discuss moral issues when they arose, and to report the freedom to deviate from the curriculum without permission.

Good links with parents and their agreement on the importance of character were also important.

Effective "character education" doesn't mean a separate character lesson, delivered as one might a geometric proof. Character is "caught" more effectively than it is "taught". "Caught", that is, indirectly - through the ethos of a school, and through teachers' behaviour and role modelling.

A teacher's approach to teaching - and their behaviour in general - are just as important as the content that's taught.

This doesn't mean that teachers need to be paragons of moral virtue, incapable of making mistakes. Rather, it means that teachers need to be mindful of their own character strengths and weaknesses, and to be committed to openness about these.

Schools must also provide opportunities to develop character attributes outside of the classroom, through participation in sport, music, art and drama, and social action. These activities provide a type of "non-formal learning", where character is often a by-product of what is, on the face of it, a fun but challenging task that requires practice, hard work, team working and leadership.

The Department for Education has highlighted the importance of many of these activities for developing character. They've created the Character Awards with the aim of recognising good practice. They've created a Character Education Unit, and they're testing the impact that a series of programmes can have on developing character and on educational attainment.

These are all important, and there is a limit to what can be pushed on to schools given trends towards greater school autonomy in academies and free schools.

Image copyright Alamy

Yet if the education secretary wants her character agenda to truly succeed, she must go further - undertaking bigger reforms to embed character, end-to-end, in the education system.

Her biggest challenge will be to reform Ofsted and how schools are assessed. As noted above, teachers who feel able to deviate from the national curriculum are more likely to successfully assist with character development. In the Demos report Character Nation, teachers and head teachers have identified the relentless focus on league tables, based on solely on one measure of attainment, as the single biggest obstacle to developing character in schools.

Instead, assessing schools on their social, moral, spiritual and cultural development, needs to be given equal priority with educational attainment. Schools can and should attempt to gather evidence on character development, and attempts should be made to measure it.

Multiple criteria should be used, including quantitative and qualitative measures. And there definitely shouldn't be a character "league table". Ofsted needs to follow Scotland's lead, and expand its remit into the community more generally - measuring the opportunities that young people have to take part in non-formal learning outside of school.

The other big challenge will be to reform teacher training to not only include instruction on the types of education that can help develop things like empathy and resilience, but also on instilling in teachers the importance of them acting as character role models.

This will be difficult - teacher training has become increasingly fragmented, making it difficult to ensure a single and comprehensive character curriculum. And many teachers are also likely to resist the phrase "character" when it's being instilled from the top down.

But the fact that these reforms are difficult is no excuse for why they should be ignored. To quote Theodore Roosevelt: "It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed."

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