We must resist the urge to assess pupils' character

Character is caught, not taught – and different pupils pick it up in different times and in different ways, says Bernard Trafford

Angel and devil, balancing on scales

People expect everything from schools. Politicians and social engineers want basic levels of literacy and numeracy, plus narrowed attainment gaps and ever-improving results. Oh, and they want every form of social ill, threat or temptation tackled in school, too. 

Parents, for the most part, desperately want their kids to get top grades, notwithstanding the fact that, when formally interviewed, they frequently claim that they “just want them to be happy”.

Ambitious students often feel pressured to do (and, again, get top grades in) whatever subjects that latest research says will attract a better salary, or maybe win them a place at the better class of university – one that will, er, earn them a better salary. Not what turns them on intellectually, then, but what’s “useful” and (did I say this before?) earns them more long term.

Employers regularly call for well-qualified, literate, numerate, self-reliant, autonomous yet compliant wunderkinder, who can slot into a job after minimal induction or training, and get straight down to being productive. That’s not what they say, but it’s frequently what they mean. Then they moan that schools don’t prepare kids for the world of work.

An all-round education

Schools themselves want to give children an all-round education. That’s not just skills in traditional core subjects, plus appropriate levels of intellectual and exam achievement in chosen areas.

Schools also see as their mission the development of those less-measurable but vital additional qualities that all the pressure-groups above (except perhaps the kids themselves) also demand from time to time: empathy, compassion, generosity, altruism, teamwork, cooperation, ability to listen, self-confidence, initiative, resilience, flexibility, adaptability.

I could keep adding to that already long list – as could you – until we create a fascinatingly complex compendium of interrelated themes, all of which we consider vital to pupils’ personal growth. 

Alternatively, we could stop trying to include every individual aspect comprehensively, and just roll them all up in a single collective word. “Character” is now the buzzword. Former education secretary Damian Hinds and his successor Gavin Williamson have a departmental advisory group to work on it. But the task is full of pitfalls.

Defining the indefinable

For a start, can you actually define character in education? It’s all of it, really, the whole end-product of schooling. But government is unlikely to base any framework or programme it devises on anything so vague or subjective, when all its success criteria are based on measurable outcomes. 

Ofsted’s new handbook summarises character rather neatly as: “A set of personal traits, dispositions and virtues that informs their motivation and guides their conduct so that they reflect wisely, learn eagerly, behave with integrity and cooperate consistently well with others.” 

Fine. But, within our high-stakes accountability system, how will schools ensure their development of character is judged good? I foresee the emergence of a character equivalent of the mercifully now-abandoned “Ofsted lesson plan”, deplored by the inspectorate but almost inevitable given the pressure it engenders.

Modelling values

Moreover, can you actually teach character? In a recent Tes piece, Julia Harrington and Jonnie Noakes observed that some (me included) argue you can’t: it’s something that’s “caught”.

That doesn’t mean such vital learning happens by accident. On the contrary, a school can achieve it by consistently promoting and modelling a coherent set of values and by ensuring that, both within and beyond the formal core curriculum, it offers a calculated and plentiful range of opportunities for creative, expressive, voluntary, altruistic, sporting, outdoor, team-based challenges. Challenges, not mere experiences, is the realm where character is most easily and reliably learned. 

Trouble is, it’s messy. You can’t run a test at the end to see if the desired lessons have been learned: pupils will “catch” character learning in different ways and situations, at different times, when they’re ready. 

Still, the signs are positive. The necessary conversations, research and sharing of ideas across the profession are already well underway. 

But let’s not allow rigid government guidelines or clumsy accountability structures to straitjacket – and thus strangle in infancy – this most desirable, and important, of developments. 

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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