A call for Character

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A blackboard reading back to school with a face mask hanging over

By Aidan Thompson, Director of Strategic Initiatives and Joe McDowell, Engagement Officer, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham.

Looking ahead to what is sure to be a unique summer term for pupils, teachers and parents alike, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues believes that now is an appropriate moment to broadcast a call for character to all involved in the education of young people, and have recently published a statement on character and the pandemic.

This statement responds to the former Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield’s challenge that we as a nation need to ‘build back better for children’ in the wake of the Coronavirus lockdowns. It also seeks to change the current dominant deficit narrative around the return to schools and offer a reflection on what this ‘return’ could mean from the perspective of character education.

The current language used has primarily focussed on the cognitive skills required by pupils and the perceived academic learning deficit in English and Maths. The Centre believes that a focus on the positive language of character, as well as the impact such an approach can have for young people’s wellbeing and mental health, is missing from ministerial and public exchanges on pupils returning to schools. This is despite many parents and teachers speaking of their desire for their children to catch up on their friendships in the school community as a primary concern. Even Sir Kevan Collins, the government’s own Education Recovery Commissioner, noted the importance of addressing attainment divides through ‘social skills’ and the ‘broader needs of child development’ not just cognitive skills in his first interviews since being in post.

Good education cannot exist without good character education. This is the most effective way to support a pupil to flourish by developing their academic ability, their understanding of their own moral motivations and their sense of wellbeing in equal parts. This has been known to many teachers for a long time, with more coming to understand the importance of character as best practice each day. A fact demonstrated by the Jubilee Centre’s Online CPD for teachers, Leading Character Education in Schools’, welcoming its 2000 learner this week, less than a year after launching.

In many ways, we hope that such a call simply serves as a reminder to the government and the Department for Education on commitments already made. In both the 2019 Character Education Framework and Section 28 of the most recent Ofsted Education Inspection Framework, specific references to the responsibilities held by schools for developing character and the important part it plays in pupil development were made.

The past year has shown the adaptability, resilience and fortitude of so many in our education sector. As this statement outlines this should not be forgotten, with such positive virtue traits celebrated and learned from. As we seek to navigate towards a new landscape in schools any additional learning time should continue the focus on the sense of service to others developed in many across the country, frame the catch-up curriculum as an opportunity for adventure that emphasises the outdoors, reconnection with community and rekindling lost relationships as well as on the mental wellbeing of all in a school creating space and time to creatively process and learn from these unprecedented experiences.

Whether it is taught in classrooms, caught in communities or sought by pupils who have benefited from positive role models and the opportunities to thrive through character-led interventions, it is a foundation such as this that will ensure the positive continued engagement that is essential if we are to build back better, towards a shared flourishing future for all.

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