Building character in our schools needs a whole education approach

Photo credit: Guernsey Sports

Building character in schools is in fashion and senior politicians are now falling over themselves to extol the virtues of a rounded education. Teachers agree; most want to move away from the narrow concentration on testing and league tables. Whether it is through after school clubs, sport or as Michael Gove would have it, joining a cadet force, there seems to be general agreement that a school experience should include elements that build “character”. However, key questions remain; how is this best achieved?  Just as importantly how can we be sure that expanding extra curricular activities and encouraging volunteering will have a positive impact on our young people? One possible approach is being championed by the organisation Whole Education. Judith Judd reviews the evidence.

Suddenly, character building through education is back in fashion. No-one has yet suggested that the next battle of Waterloo may be lost on the playing fields of England’s comprehensives but a private school head argued recently that state schools, unlike their independent counterparts, are failing to teach pupils the difference between right and wrong.

Many Whole Education schools are looking at ways of changing their curriculum so that young people are better prepared for life and work. They are also interested in making links with their communities.

Richard Walden said the former didn’t have time for the extra-curricular activities that form part of a rounded education. Critics have been quick to point to privately educated bankers and MPs with questionable moral compasses but no-one has challenged the view that education is about more than A-levels and getting a job.

Character and creativity

Politicians, too, are talking about character. This Government and the last have spent much of their time keeping schools’ noses to the grindstone of testing and league tables. Now, Michael Gove and his Labour shadow, Tristram Hunt, say that they support the idea that pupils should acquire qualities that cannot be measured so easily. Hunt said earlier this year that schools should instil “character and creativity.” Gove said that pupils should take part in sports and cadet forces to improve their “character.”

Is the talk of developing “grit and determination” just a nostalgic nod to Britain’s imperial past? Or is there evidence that schools which try to develop skills such as resilience, confidence and teamwork benefit their pupils and their communities? Do after-school clubs and volunteering come at the price of academic achievement?

A look at the website of Mr Gove’s Department of Education provides some answers. One of the most recent case studies is of Outwood Academy Portland in Worksop. In 2010, it was in special measures. It is now outstanding. Dr Phillip Smith, its head, says that a relentless focus on the core subjects of English and Maths has been crucial, but its success has only been possible because of a big increase in the number of extra-curricular activities.

The 100 or more after school clubs (from circus skills to minecraft) have turned the school into a place where the pupils want to be. To accommodate them the formal school day starts at 8.25 am and finishes at 2.30 pm when the clubs begin. Mr Gove has endorsed the school’s approach: “I have never visited a school that excelled academically which didn’t also excel at extra-curricular activities.”

Among teachers, the belief that schools need to provide a more rounded education for their pupils in and out of the classroom is growing steadily.

Tapping into discontent

Five years ago, I joined an organisation called Whole Education that aims to support schools who are interested in looking at new ways of doing this. It has formed partnerships with employers and other groups which share its beliefs and now has more than 500 member schools. It knows that it has tapped into widespread discontent among teachers about a blinkered concentration on the accountability measures that governments have introduced during the past 20 years.

Many Whole Education schools are looking at ways of changing their curriculum so that young people are better prepared for life and work. They are also interested in making links with their communities. They include many schools judged good or outstanding by Ofsted, all of whom agree with Dr Phillip Smith that a broad approach to education leads to better exam results and inspection success.

Much of the evidence for a Whole Education is empirical and the organisation hopes to bolster this with more research. The same is true for the effect of after school activities. Research on the subject is patchy and inconsistent.

The Education Endowment Foundation, a charity that aims to raise standards for disadvantaged pupils in English schools, has looked at the research on after school programmes and suggests that the effect on academic achievement is relatively small and that the nature and quality of an activity are crucial to its success. It argues that sports and arts activities may benefit pupils’ attitudes but do not, on their own, raise academic achievement.

Evidence from abroad

Much of the research in this area comes from the United States where the federal government invested $3.6 billion in after school programmes in 2002. A study from the Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning examined the impact of after school programmes that promote personal and social skills. It found that young people’s attitudes, behaviour and school performance (test scores) improved but only if they attended well-structured programmes run by well trained staff.

A recent review of the evidence by Erin Massoni from the College of DuPage in Illinois also found that participation in extra curricular activities improved behaviour, attitude to school and grades. Another study suggested that such activities reduced the school drop out rate particularly for ethnic minority and disabled pupils.

In the UK, the latest contribution to the debate comes from the think tank, Demos. Its study, Scouting for Skills, commends the movement for its encouragement of the soft skills required by employers and finds that it improves young people’s employment prospects. Eighty-eight per cent of teachers questioned in the survey believed that volunteering built character.

None of the research is conclusive but it does suggest that Dr Smith’s encouragement of extra-curricular activities at Outwood Academy Portland and Whole Education’s pursuit of curriculum innovation are worth further exploration. If Gove and Hunt are serious about using schools to build character, they need to give schools the freedom to make it happen.

Judith Judd is a member of the board of Whole Education

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