Various Shades of Character Education – Part Two

Today’s Education Guardian contains a column written by Fiona Millar under the title

A nod towards ‘character education’ is welcome – just don’t start measuring it

Its strapline says

The character innovation fund is to make ‘awards’ to schools and other bodies – but at least it recognises that children cannot live by exams alone

Read the entire article here:

What is character education? Now is a good time to ask. The shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, has been talking about it for the last year and the Department for Education has announced a character innovation fund, which makes character “awards” to schools and other bodies.

This idea could appear to be verging on parody, but I think we should take it in good faith if it demonstrates a growing recognition that children cannot live by drilling and exams results alone, and that fostering good social and emotional development is far from a wishy-washy “Blob”-like pursuit.

At this year’s London Festival of Education a panel session in the Jeffrey Hall at the IoE addressed the question: “True Grit? Whose job is it to build resilience and character?


The majority of our schools – possibly all of them, including our world famous independent schools – clearly understand that what happens within them contributes massively to the shaping of their students’ character – whatever that character may be. Whether or not our teachers set out to be role models, their values – along with the values of the school – are absorbed by many, if not most, of their students.

Peter Hyman is the head of School21 in Stratford, East London. The school has a markedly different pedagogy and different educational aims to the majority of UK schools. We’ve published several posts already on his vision for School21, and on the school’s aims. On this occasion he reiterated that England needs to change its existing purposes for education and to change the ways in which schools go about education. He insists we need to broaden out our purposes to ensure we educate “the whole child”. “No more drilling harder for slightly better results.”

Mr Hyman said that order to thrive in the 21st Century students need to develop character traits and attributes such as ‘grit’, ‘eloquence’, ‘spark’, ‘professionalism’, ‘craftsmanship’ and ‘expertise’. School21 sees its purpose as enabling all of these to develop fully and organises its learning and teaching accordingly. In teaching pupils the craft of writing, for example, the school enables them to work through multiple drafts of writing that’s done for real purposes towards a final draft that’s expressive of the individual student’s ‘voice’. This process stands in contrast to the practice of students producing one-off pieces of writing which are handed in to a teacher, marked for correctness and content, and having been graded are then handed back, often with few comments and no wider sharing or publishing – because there never was any purpose for the writing other than the achievement of grades. Becoming a capable writer is far from easy for many children, and it’s important for every teacher to know how to develop writing skills and children’s individual ‘voice’.

Mr Hyman expressed concern about “massive schools” which are “not right” for pupils or teachers, and said year groups should be no bigger than 70-75 throughout a school. (School21 is an all-through primary/secondary) He explained that “coaching groups” of 12 students per adult are an important feature of his school, and every teacher is trained as a 1 – 1 coach.

Mr Hyman told his audience that “kids show ‘true grit’ just by coping with things that happen to them in their everyday lives”. “The sole pursuit of an academic agenda will not equip kids to build life skills.” “Given opportunities to develop ‘voice’ and confidence they can develop in extraordinary ways.”

Martin Robinson agreed with what Peter Hyman said about the importance of developing ‘voice’ and ‘eloquence’ – although he prefers to call it ‘rhetoric’. He’s concerned, however, that some might see these aspects of education as part of “character building”, and even more concerned that “character education” could become another “subject” that is scrutinised and inspected by Ofsted, with schools and teachers having to amass data to prove that they are teaching “character”. [We share these concerns and have said so previously on this blog. We cannot teach ‘character’ any more than we can teach ‘happiness’ – but the ways in which we organise learning certainly influence and contribute to the development of character, confidence, enthusiasm for learning and pupil wellbeing. Clearly it’s nonsense to think that schools could or should develop precise ways of measuring the work they do to support these aspects of learning and skills development] “We all have character. We build character through the choices we make.” (Mr Robinson has expanded on these points in a recent blog post) He went on to say, “Every school needs a really good counselling service.”

Peter Hyman says, as do we ourselves, that the knowledge curriculum is important, but of equal importance are the skills and personal attributes that young people need in the 21st Century. He’s also concerned that “schools should be lively, stimulating, creative places – too many schools are just boring; the diet for children is too dull.” “Schools should offer learning that takes place through rich, real-world projects. This is a lot to ask of teachers; it IS demanding. But children can achieve amazing things if we give them the chance to do so.”

Martin Robinson’s view is that teachers should have 50% non-contact time to enable them to properly prepare their work with students and assess student progress. He also wants schools to offer the Trivium – going beyond mere “transmission” of knowledge and enabling children to “articulate their own thoughts about things“. “We should teach the history of thought . . . the Renaissance . . . the Enlightenment . . .”

Claire Fox said she agreed with most of what Martin Robinson said, but then went on to say that teachers should “stick to what they’re good at – passing on knowledge. We don’t want a child-centred therapy culture, and a culture concerned with ‘confidence’, self-esteem, interpersonal skills . . .” Plus “we don’t want a generation of cotton-wool kids”.

Tell that to the thousands of children who are used, abused and exploited by adults and by their peers. Not much cotton wool in their lives.

Claire Fox also said, “It’s ridiculous to expect education to solve poverty”. But this is pretty much what is said by those who insist children need to do well academically – even if it’s to the exclusion of other aspects of achievement – so that examination success can enable them individually to overcome poverty by getting through to further and higher education and to well-paid employment. Tell that to our unemployed, underemployed and frequently underpaid graduates. Academic success alone is no longer a guarantee of wellbeing, if indeed it ever was. Neither is academic success on its own likely to help young people to make the most of their individual gifts, talents and creative capabilities.

Professor Judith Suissa of the Institute of Education had said earlier in this session that “character education” and the development of “grit” should not be simply a way of enabling young people to “cope” with hardship and poverty. Why should we expect children to cope with poverty? She pointed out that there is growing inequality in England and the UK, and that one in five children live below the poverty line. Those children often fail to thrive, the “precariat” continues to grow in size, and we live within a value system that puts more and more emphasis on individualism and competitiveness, less and less on cooperation and mutuality. Why is there no encouragement to develop alternative values for a fairer society? Social mobility is important, but we need first and foremost a world with minimal poverty – not the status quo and “a school system that simply helps some children to climb out of poverty through doing well academically.”

Claire Fox’s comment was, “It’s the role of parents to brainwash their children.” In which case we wish the best of luck to all those children unfortunate enough to have parents whose value system is the complete opposite of what a decent civilisation would call enlightened. Of course schools shouldn’t ‘brainwash’ children, and it’s unfortunate that anyone should insinuate that those who set out to enable children and young people to learn life skills and “articulate their own thoughts” about their lives and the world around them (rather than simply passing on knowledge from one generation to the next) might be guilty of some sort of brainwashing.

It seems three out of the four people on this panel agreed with Martin Robinson’s assertion that “the investigation of what it is to be human is the business of schools”.

See also:

Home page of School21

The CBI Education Report

CBI statement…………………………………………………………………………………..
Martin Robinson’s blog:


Explaining The Finnish Miracle; In Teachers We Trust:

On Maslow’s studies of “Fully evolved humans”

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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