‘Character education is more than a buzzword. Here’s how to get it right’

Nicky Morgan's flagship scheme has been scrapped, but there is still value to be found in character education, argues this head of PSHE

Maria O'Neill

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Two of the latest buzzwords in the teaching profession are "character education" and "values". Many schools incorporate "values" into tutor time, assemblies and lesson plans. 

But I believe that there is substance to these particular buzzwords, despite the recent news that Nicky Morgan's flagship character education scheme has been scrapped. Discussions around our personal values are useful. It is important that we encourage each and every one of our pupils to reflect on the type of person they would like to become.

However, this is not enough. We should be empowering pupils to embed values into their daily lives and we can only achieve this through providing them with regular opportunities to put those qualities into action.

Before we go any further it is important to emphasise that:

  • Character education is not about "fixing" our young people.
  • It is not about giving them pre-determined strategies on how to get along with their peers, teachers or family members.
  • It is not about reinforcing accepted rules and teaching pupils right from wrong with the aim of improving their behaviour. Establishing sanctions and rewards systems can lead to temporary changes in behaviour, but the outcomes will not be sustainable.


Character education requires us to dig deeper and look at moral principles, ethos and virtues that underpin human behaviours. Dr Marvin Berkowitz (1997) claims that: “Effective character education is not adding a program or set of programs to a school. Rather it is a transformation of the culture and life of the school.”

How, then, can we nurture a culture that empowers our young pupils to behave with integrity and act upon their core values inside and outside of school walls? There are two key points to bear in mind.

Character education CPD

When we are dealing with a change in school culture, we are dealing with many different components that form educational communities:  beliefs, values, climate, relationships, patterns of behaviour, written or unwritten rules, and, most importantly, ‘‘the way we do things’’.

As with any change in culture, it is vital that staff are given training to develop the necessary personal skills and time to get to grips with new approaches. They need the chance to gain a deeper understanding of the issues and processes relating to character education. This can be achieved through sustainable forms of CPD activities, such as coaching or action research projects, that enable the teachers to grow and change through reflection and collaboration.

Embedding character education throughout the curriculum

PSHE lessons are an obvious place to teach the "softer" skills of character education and values. However, if we are hoping to effect a shift in whole-school culture, these lessons should not be the only platform we use to promote character education.

“Teachers are permanently involved in values education…sometimes…without even realising that they are teaching values…” write Kohlberg and Turiel (cited in Harecker, 2012). It is true that teachers are often delivering character education through other subjects in a less formal ways. We promote resilience and grit in PE lessons, empathy in RE, diversity and understanding in MFL.

It is essential that we not only take notice of these moments, drawing students’ attention towards them, but that we start to plan to for them and to work across departments to consistently promote character education. For example, through ensuring academic rigour, we can all promote discipline, academic honesty and hard work. It is vital that every single member of the school community accepts the shared responsibility for character education so that it becomes ‘‘part of the fabric of the community’’ (Gelpi, 2008).

Maria O’Neill is an advanced skills teacher, e-safety co-ordinator and head of PSHE. She is also a wellbeing coach, PhD student researching wellbeing and personal development, and founder of @HealthyToolkit and @UKPastoralChat

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Maria O'Neill


Maria O’Neill is an advanced Skills Teacher, eSafety co-ordinator and Head of PSHE. Wellbeing coach, PhD student researching wellbeing and personal development, founder of @HealthyToolkit and @UKPastoralChat.


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