Nicky Morgan: Why we need to focus on building character in classrooms

Is our education system in danger of doing only half a job?
Is our education system in danger of doing only half a job?
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The English education system is in danger of doing only half the job it needs to do to prepare our children for the 21st century. In a world where many of the jobs of tomorrow haven’t even been invented, where technology is changing our world increasingly rapidly and where people are likely to dip in and out of self-employment, employers are putting an ever greater premium on traits such as resilience, persistence, grit, leadership, self-awareness and self-efficacy.

But a focus on character education isn’t just about our working lives. These traits stand all of us in great stead for an ever-more complicated life and as schools shape our society the more people who have these traits the stronger and more values-driven our society will be.

Nicky Morgan MP

Nicky Morgan MP

And yet it is still too hit and miss as to whether our schools actively develop these traits. How do people develop their character? What do they have to do or experience to build those traits? Can these traits be taught? I firmly believe the answer is yes and explore this in my new book, Taught Not Caught: Educating for 21st Century Character.

As Education Secretary I visited many schools, including many across Yorkshire, and could see those schools where the headteacher and all the staff were building not just knowledgeable young people but also engaged and confident pupils. Where they were helping them to develop values which would set them up for life, to be aware of their community, to identify their passions in life and to help them to flourish. And I could see those schools which professed to do these things but didn’t, those which told me they simply didn’t have the time owing to the demands placed on them by the curriculum and their governors or parents and I know there are those who believe they don’t need to bother with all this “soft skills stuff” and that an academic curriculum has to be their only goal.

In writing my book I had the privilege of visiting some of the schools who won Department for Education character awards. Hearing their stories, looking at the work they’ve done to promote character education and identify the values they want to embed and seeing how positive they are about this area of their school life has confirmed to me that focusing on character sits alongside gaining knowledge. In fact, the former helps the latter.

One of the schools I had the pleasure of visiting was Tapton School in Sheffield. At Tapton the focus is on ‘learning behaviours’. Students are expected to demonstrate five key behaviours – resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness, reciprocity and respect, values and attitude. There are nine levels of ability. At level 9 a student is demonstrating an “outstanding level of independence – an accomplished and sophisticated and learner”.

The learning behaviours are reinforced through posters around the school, assemblies, PSHE lessons, parent evenings and staff training. Feedback to students has to be “positive, critical and formative” and they receive a rating on “where they are as a learner”. In the words of executive headteacher David Dennis, everyone at the school “has to live this” approach.

The common denominator about the schools I visited and who won the character awards is that their focus on how to learn, how to be self-reflective and how to develop a language of character traits and values is deliberate and everyone in the school community, including parents, is engaged.

Every institution, whether we are talking about schools, Parliament or a newsroom, has its own ethos or character. That character is demonstrated and reinforced through, for example, the role models provided by the adults and older pupils, badges and reward schemes and the way values are talked about. My argument is that each school should be explicit about the character traits and values they want their students to learn about and take away with them, which means such traits and values have to be explicitly developed and not left to chance. This doesn’t mean having specific lessons on each trait or value, nor does it mean having specific assessment or other measurements, but it does mean traits and values are talked about across the curriculum and reinforced at every opportunity via channels such as assemblies, extra-curricular activities and the role models the pupils see every day.

Education is the greatest investment we can make in the future of our country. So, the greatest investment the education system can make in our pupils is to ensure they gain both knowledge and character.

I also believe great education is the way to heal the divisions which have been revealed in our country time after time in recent years and to build the values-driven society we so badly need.

A rich education full of character development is not an alternative to an academic, knowledge-rich education. They are two sides of the same coin and both are necessary to prepare our young people for success and stability.

Nicky Morgan is Conservative MP for Loughborough and a former Education Secretary.