Why is Character Education important?
The product of the education sector in the UK has been through a process of devaluation for some years with schools placing ‘all-consuming’ emphasis on exam results as the currency of success. Education establishments have undertaken a quest to cram students to the brim with information to achieve grades (tick) and to get into ‘university’ (tick), irrespective of the suitability and cost-benefit analysis. All this has come at a major imbalance on the cost side; the financial cost of a never-to-be-paid-off debt-pile; the mental health cost of fear of failure; and the opportunity cost of no guarantee of a good career at the end of it all as many employers have already abandoned looking at the Weimar-style inflated grades on CVs. The system is broken, beyond repair in its current guise.
The Government, nudging at glacial speed, having finally come round to realising that the purpose of going to school might just be to have an important role in preparing pupils for adult life, decided to introduce their vision for character education in schools. This is based on numerous government-commissioned and university studies, backed by common sense, which show that character traits have a positive influence on the social and emotional well-being, as well as the academic performance, of students. Cause and effect. Character education not only helps to develop all aspects of a person through the pursuit of the virtues, enhances social mobility and life chances, it also promotes the common good and the flourishing of the greater good of society. Win-win all round!
Initially, the Department of Education, not wishing to overload, prioritised the teaching of a few premier league character facets, like resilience, as a key deliverable objective. In support of this goal, the DfE has pledged to support schools to develop pupils into “well-rounded, confident, happy and resilient individuals to boost their academic attainment, employability and ability to engage in society as active citizens”. This involves looking beyond exams to non-academic thriving as the result of their motivation, determination and resilience, like getting a good job and having positive relationships. The building of “character and grit” is one of the approaches identified in this guidance as helping to “bolster” mental health. Overall, this sits well with teachers, pupils and parents as it links together mental health issues and education; detailed in the DfE’s document Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools.
Why is building resilience important for young people?
Partly, because there are significant life events and challenges which occur in the transition from being a child supported by a family infrastructure at home to becoming a self-supporting grown-up. Also, bags of resilience and strong emotional intelligence enable people to deal with problems and cope with failure, AKA the Growth Mindset; developing the ability to see opportunities instead of barriers and respond to setbacks. This is what society and employers want.
So, it’s alright to fail, then?
Well, as long as you do it early enough and learn from mistakes to shrug off that failure and turn it into success!
‘Twas ever thus, but the difference is that nowadays to achieve the gold standard of ‘outstanding’, schools must clear a raised bar as Ofsted has stated that “children’s wellbeing and happiness in school underpin their attainment and achievement”. Suddenly, it’s high up the agenda!
It looks like the current exam system is here to stay for now and character development will just have to fit in around the jampacked curriculum. To change this emphasis would involve a wider cultural shift about how society views education…..or until somebody spots that schoolchildren haven’t taken formal exams for two years and still got into university!
One certainty is that most of this generation of schoolchildren will go on to the world of work and adulthood. So, shouldn’t education be preparing them for that?
Currently, some charities and youth organisations facilitate filling the gap between school and employability skills by offering activities but it’s not joined up and the Covid absence will have exacerbated the problem and widened the gap.
One of the big flaws of the hard skills’ focus of secondary education is the weak link to careers and business. The Government recognises there is a mismatch between what young people are being taught at school and the skills employers require.
Good at exams ≠ good at a job.
And this is a problem; 44% of employers in UK feel young people leaving school, college or university are not ‘work-ready’ and, in addition, a shortage in positive character traits and behaviours has been suggested as the core reason for young people being long-term unemployed.
So, what’s this ‘work-ready’ thing then?
The CBI tells us: “Soft skills, essential skills, employability skills, transferable skills, 21st century skills, interpersonal skills, life skills and character education, are just some of the interchangeable but not identical ways of describing what it means to be ‘work ready’”.
Nothing to do with industry qualifications there.
Just to add to the confusion, HR departments historically have adopted the term ‘soft skills’ and there is some debate as to whether character traits are the same as soft skills or ‘life skills’ in another guise. There is overlap, but the word ‘soft’ diminishes the importance and might give the impression that they are easier to develop.
The experts from the Jubilee Centre clear up the distinction: “Soft skills: a term often used by employers to describe a whole range of qualities desired in a young person – these might include things as diverse as being on time, being able to write a report and being presentable. The term is particularly vague.” Whereas “Character describes a way of being rather than simply a set of competencies or skills that we can learn”. Right, qualities versus being. Got it?
The way employers see this is that the temple of ‘work-readiness’ is supported by ‘three pillars’: character, knowledge and skills. All three are interconnected and are crucial props to prepare a young person for employment. For example, knowledge per se isn’t that useful unless it can be applied in the real world. Schools focus on passing exams as a measurement of success, yet employers increasingly want skills and behaviours over qualifications.
According to the CBI, business leaders argue that the key traits they need within their workforce are resilience, determination and agility and an abundance of these would benefit UK plc with improved productivity, performance, retention and progression. Yet, according to Youth Employment UK, young people are not aware of the employability skills required and desired by employers. Disseminating this information would be a good start.
Character education enables young people to deal with the numerous setbacks they will encounter inside and outside the workplace, to build a tool to reflect on personal strengths and areas for improvement, and to develop a realistic and compassionate outlook on themselves and others. Nicky Morgan confirms: “To thrive in today’s workplaces, our students need not just knowledge and qualifications but other skills… Character education has an important role to play.”