'The development of the personal characteristics of our pupils should be given the highest of priorities'

21st July 2016 at 17:18
Character development
It’s time to rethink the place of character education, says one leading headteacher

Why spend a week of the summer holiday holed up in an air-conditioned conference hotel in Dallas?

The first presenter at the 2016 Festival of Positive Education (@PosEdNet) provided the answer. According to Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of Character Lab, interests are something you pursue when no one is telling you what to do. My interest is in the impact of positive psychology on the achievements of my pupils and colleagues, and on their personal development and fulfilment, so a week in Dallas surrounded by the gurus of character development and another 800 people from 30 different countries from across the world seems the natural thing to do.

In the UK, research conducted by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham ("Character Education in UK Schools, 2015") showed that “a concern for the development of a child’s whole character is central to good education and practice” and that the majority of teachers felt their school already had a “whole-school approach to character building”. It pointed to “weak links in the education system, which suggest that moral education needs to be prioritised within a greater number of British schools”.

On the whole, we in the UK have been suspicious of the character development agenda because of the lack of evidence pointing to improved academic outcomes. We are behind the curve. It’s time to wake up and to rethink our priorities. A revolution is happening in global education and it took hold this week in Dallas. Positive education uses the wide-ranging and well-established research of positive psychology to challenge the current paradigm of education, which values academic attainment above all other goals.

So what is positive education? Before I answer that question, answer this one for me: In less than three words, what is it we want our children to gain from school? Most parents would answer first with a description of personal characteristics for their children such as confidence, integrity, resilience, empathy and happiness. Happiness is certainly what I hear most.

Now, what do we teach in our schools? Mostly we would answer numeracy, literacy, exam technique etc. Do you see the mismatch? We seek a set of personal characteristics and we teach to a set of outcomes or measurable quantities such as GCSEs or other exam results. Positive education seeks to flip things so that we explicitly develop the personal characteristics and thereby support the academic achievements of our pupils.

'Happy children work better'

Character, with wellbeing, is the development of personal strengths and wellbeing, both of which are intrinsically valuable and contribute to a variety of positive life outcomes. Academic study is the fulfillment of intellectual potential through the learning of the best that has been thought and known. Character with wellbeing + academic study = positive education

Hang on; surely teaching wellbeing and developing character in school wastes valuable time, interferes with traditional academics, and diverts valuable resources from academic teaching?

Well, no; the twin strands of character and academics complement one another and are mutually reinforcing. This is no new-age, unsubstantiated assertion. It really works across the world, in hundreds of schools and with millions of pupils. In as little as 12 months, positive education has had an impact on their wellbeing and academic success in schools in Australia, Mexico, the USA, Peru, Bhutan and India, across all sorts of contexts and with all sorts of pupils including the most disadvantaged.

How is this possible? Well, happy children who are well equipped to deal with the teenage years are typically more engaged in their studies and require fewer interventions. What we think intuitively must be the case, turns out to be the case.

So what are the implications for schools here in the UK? Surely, this should be part of the solution in tackling the underachievement of white, working-class boys in the UK as well as boosting the performance of others?

I suggest that the development of the personal characteristics of our pupils is given the highest of priorities. By so doing we are equipping them with attributes that will last them a lifetime and enhance their achievements. The character education grants, awarded by the Department for Education and totalling £6 million, are set to be announced in September 2016 and will take a small step in this direction.

Positive education is about helping others to be happy, to achieve more and to think, feel and work better. Why would we not take such a step? 

I never thought I’d become a revolutionary but it feels good. Now what am I going to do for the remainder of the summer?

Mike Buchanan is headteacher of Ashford School in Kent. He tweets at @Ashfordhead

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