'While a tough maths problem may develop the resilience of one student, another may develop those capabilities through sport'

A new report suggests that playing rugby helps pupils to develop character. The Department for Education needs to draw on such evidence when allocating funds for character-building activities, the head of citizenship at a thinktank says

Ralph Scott

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In one of the less-examined parts of the recent schools White Paper, the DfE renewed its commitment to developing character through schools, announcing plans for additional funding “for 25 per cent of secondary schools to extend their school day to include a wider range of activities, such as sport, arts and debating”.

For those who follow these kinds of things, the proliferation of research showing that character capabilities – things like self-regulation, resilience, empathy, leadership and cooperation – really matter for later-life outcomes has been profound.

By “outcomes”, I don’t just mean attainment, but also the other things that matter in life: wellbeing, health, long-term relationships, employability and so on.

Evidence on what works to develop them is somewhat more thin on the ground – though reports from the Early Intervention Foundation, Behavioural Insights Team and NatCen have been building the picture, and the ongoing Education Endowment Foundation trials will further enhance the evidence base.

Rugby ball

However, when Nicky Morgan announced her plan for England to become a world-leader in character education she did so holding a rugby ball. As she said then:

“All young people can learn from rugby – it teaches you how to bounce back from defeat, how to respect others and how to work together. That is why, in the year we host the Rugby World Cup, we are funding some of our best rugby clubs to go into schools and transform the lives of disaffected and disadvantaged children.”

Since then, the coaches of 14 professional rugby clubs, coordinated by the umbrella body Premiership Rugby, have been busily delivering a six-week programme combining rugby practice with classroom-based character education to more than 17,000 young people across England.

But has it worked? Does rugby help to develop character?

We at Demos were recruited to evaluate the success or otherwise of the pilot, looking both at character outcomes for participants and the overall success of the programme’s implementation.

The results for secondary participants were impressive, with significant positive reported change across almost every outcome measured.

Social skills

There were substantial increases across character capabilities associated with performance and problem-solving. Grit, a measure of resilience that incorporates self-regulation and the ability to stick to a task even when the going gets tough, increased by 7 per cent on average.

Self-efficacy, reflecting confidence in one’s own competence increased by 9 per cent. The two measures related to thinking one’s way around a problem – problem-solving and creativity – increased by 9 per cent and 8 per cent respectively.

There were also significant increases in those character capabilities related to social skills. Empathy, the ability to consider another’s feelings and take these into account when acting increased by 8 per cent. Cooperation, a measure of team-working skills, increased by 8 per cent, team-working by 10 per cent and leadership by 9 per cent.

So what do these results tell us?

Firstly, it appears possible for rugby-based education programmes to develop various character capabilities in participants – good news for the DfE.

But unsurprisingly, this pilot evaluation is not the last word on the question of whether participating in rugby helps to develop character. There is plenty of potential for future research in this area – firstly, conducting a similar analysis alongside a comparison group, so as to isolate the effect of the programme.


It would also be interesting to review the impact on a wider range of outcomes, and the relative contribution of sport participation and the classroom learning about the values of rugby.

It is possible that the fact that team sport combines physical activity (requiring resilience) with rules (requiring self-regulation) and cooperation with team-mates (requiring social skills) is what leads it to be character-building across these domains – in fact, this is exactly what I saw happening during a session I observed at a behavioural unit in the East Midlands.

As always, the theory requires further testing. But these findings are timely, given the plans for a dedicated budget for extracurricular activities in 25 per cent of secondary schools.

We suggest that, in allocating these funds, the department and schools learn from the existing evidence on what activities build character.

It also seems important that there is differentiation between the activities that build character: while a particularly tough maths problem or a game of chess may develop the resilience and problem-solving skills of one student, another may better develop those capabilities through participating in sport or other physical activity.

Meeting these two criteria would mean that the new opportunities presented to young people are of the highest quality and are accessible to all, thereby helping Morgan to achieve her aim of making England a world-leader in character education.

Ralph Scott is head of citizenship and political participation at the thinktank Demos

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