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Guest post: Everyone’s talking about character education, but what does it really mean for teachers?

Matthew Bawden is a religious studies and wellbeing teacher, who’s spearheading the “Teaching Character Through and Within Subjects” project, funded by the UK Department for Education (DfE). As the short, free online course “What is Character? Virtue Ethics in Education” begins again on FutureLearn, Matthew discusses how teachers can get to grips with character education and the impact the course had on him earlier this year.

Matthew Bawden

Everyone’s talking about character education today. The UK government has committed to teaching character and virtues in schools, announcing a multi-million pound fund to enable England to become a world leader in teaching character, resilience and grit to pupils.

Members of Parliament (MPs) in the UK have also demonstrated their support for character education – in a poll conducted in July 2015 by ComRes for the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, 77% of 150 MPs agreed that developing a sense of moral values is as important for school children as good GSCE and A-level results.

Parents are on the same page, with 87% of parents surveyed by Populus agreeing that schools should focus on character development as well as academic attainment.

But the interest in character education has not just been in Britain. Governments in many countries around the world are also looking at how they can ensure character education is a more explicit part of schooling.

What does character education mean?

For me, character education underpins all we seek to achieve in our schools. It is possible for any school to focus on grades, behaviour, careers, attendance, and for them to see improvements through their efforts on each.

However, if the focus is instead placed primarily on the qualities of mind and character needed for current and future human flourishing, all of the other things will begin to fall in to place. Further, they will last and form the building blocks of a meaningful ethos, where everyone can reach more of their potential.

Ofsted (the organisation that inspects UK schools) makes clear reference to this when they draw attention to behaviours, attitudes and what students value in the “Personal Development, Behaviour and Welfare” section of the most recent Inspector’s Handbook.

Oftsed also states that for a school to be deemed “outstanding”, it must ensure that “Pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development equips them to be thoughtful, caring and active citizens in school and in wider society.”

Schools are about more than tests

This clearly shows that schools are about more than just “tests”; they are about preparing students for the tests of life. This was backed up by the polls conducted for the Jubilee Centre, which found that 84% of parents felt that teachers should encourage good morals and values in students.

As teachers, we help students to explore the sorts of qualities needed to not just rise to challenges, but to relish them, and come through with a greater appreciation of their lives and the lives of others around them.

Yet we cannot lose sight of the “tests” and must realise how the development of a range of qualities, and the good sense to use them well, can also impact positively on progression.

Taking a formal approach to character education

Character development has always existed within every school. It has often been implicit, and can be at odds with the school’s mission or stated ethos. Character is obvious when you walk through the doors, when you watch a match on a sports field, or when you wander the corridors.

However, this character development is not the same as a more formal approach to character education where we draw the explicit out and make it a cornerstone of what we say our schools are, and what they will be.

Taking a consistent and holistic view of what we mean by character education helps senior teachers to address their school’s ethos, and to marry their systems and practices to the wider curriculum. For this to work well, schools need a deeper and functional understanding of character.

Understanding character education more deeply

The “What is Character? Virtue Ethics in Education” course from the Jubilee Centre provides this understanding. When I took it earlier this year, I felt that both my school and I benefitted, as we had a greater understanding of the building blocks required to help our students and school to flourish.

We could see how they linked together, and could utilise character education as the central stem from which to grow our other initiatives. These initiatives arrive often with little warning and can be very urgent. Having a well-considered character development programme in place makes schools much more flexible and able to adapt to things in a timely fashion.

Supporting the Prevent strategy

One such area arises from the current push for effective Prevent materials in schools and the need to promote British values, in order to combat extremism.

Having strong, well-grounded character education means we were already addressing these issues before they became initiatives. They were addressed effectively and could be used to inform our response rather than us needing to write new policies and bring in new ideas.

Recommending the course to other teachers

This year, we have recommended this course to our staff as an excellent form of free CPD, where they can have a chance to really get to grips with what character education is all about, and to discuss things with others from all over the world.

The course has so much to offer. I found the videos to be a great way into the topic, followed up by excellent and well-directed materials for further reading, and fantastic teaching resources for taking what you’d learnt and applying it in your own classroom. I also enjoyed trying out the exercises. It was really beneficial to check I was on the right path and to hone my understanding.

Since the course ended I have gone on to use my knowledge in a variety of areas, including working with my school and Derbyshire County Council to design the Council’s in-lesson resources around radicalisation and the far-right agenda.

But for me, it was the course discussions that were the real find. As teachers, we seldom have the chance to discuss our practice with others. This course, however, offers a chance to enter into (sometimes quite lively) debate; to put forward what we do in schools; to read about others’ experiences; and to be really positively challenged.

If Matthew’s post has inspired you to dig deeper into character education, you can join the free online course “What is Character? Virtue Ethics in Education” now. It starts on Monday, 26 October 2015, and runs for two weeks. You can also share your thoughts below or by following #FLcharacter.

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