The importance of character education
– Simon Reid, Principal of Gordonstoun
Grit, resilience, enthusiasm and zest, confidence and ambition, self-control and adaptability, humility and sensitivity to global concerns are some of the attributes the CBI used when outlining what businesses of the future will need from the people they employ. The recent World Education Forum (WEF) focused its conference on ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’, in which the workplace is becoming increasingly digitised and automated. This begs the question: does our current educational system prepare the youth of today for the workplace of tomorrow?
The answer, I would argue, is no. Our current educational system and society as a whole are conditioned to evaluating children and young people on a very narrow set of assessments. Academic rigour is crucial and its importance must never been underestimated, but this cannot and should not be the sole focus for schools. Our educational system should aim to foster and develop the skills that young people will clearly need in the future. So we should focus on nurturing attributes such as those outlined by the CBI, attributes we are increasingly calling ‘character’.
How do we define ‘character’? Put simply it is the ability to pursue long-term goals, to persevere when the going gets tough and to bounce back from setbacks. It is also about building self-worth so you can swim against currents when it is right to do so.
We are all individuals with unique and personal needs and an educational system which focuses on a ‘one size fits all’ approach to assessing pupil progress is surely too narrow a focus. Most parents want their children to be happy and fulfil their potential and as educators we know that pupils develop at different rates and it is our duty to recognise this and bring out the best in each of them. As Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas argue persuasively in their book Educating Ruby – what our children really need to learn (2015), nurturing ‘character’ is instinctively what most parents and teachers aspire to and I am convinced this should be an area of much greater focus in the future.
A character education aims to prepare young people for university but also for work and family life and for being responsible citizens. Gordonstoun’s founder, Kurt Hahn, once wrote: ‘There is more in us than we know; if we could be made to see it, perhaps, for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.’ Eighty years ago, Kurt Hahn’s focus on character education was ahead of its time and it has become increasingly relevant in the modern context.
Tony Little, former Head of Eton and Honorary President of the BSA, 2015–16, has recently been quoted as saying, ‘The only ones who worried me, as I shook hands and said my farewells, were the boys and girls who had gilded school experiences. The golden school children, for whom it had been very straightforward, always good at exams, always popular, always found the flow easy to deal with. They never really had anything significant to bump up against. I think it behoves all schools to make sure all their children fail.’ I couldn’t agree more. We have a duty to teach children to pass exams but also to educate them and prepare them for life and what lies ahead.
Character education can be delivered within many different educational environments. For example, outdoor education (teaches tenacity, leadership, resilience and adaptability); sail training (teaches communication skills, tolerance and a consciousness of other people’s needs); and encouraging pupils to contribute to their community through service (nurtures compassion and the importance and reward of contributing to society). Sport, music, drama and dance all develop self-confidence and teamwork. Ensuring pupils have opportunities to take responsibility and initiative, even on a small scale, are also very important and deliverable within any school.
I would also argue that character education broadens pupils’ horizons and contributes positively to their academic performance as well as their development as people. Character education encourages a broader and deeper level of personal understanding and provides an excellent platform to help individuals learn how to look after themselves, make sound judgements and decisions and take responsibility for their actions. The role of schools to help pupils develop character is not ‘extra-curricular’. It must be at the heart of our educational system.
Educated in South Africa, Simon Reid has a BA and a Diploma in Education from The University of Witwatersrand. He is an English teacher and he has taught in South Africa, at Brentwood School, at Stowe, and at Christ’s Hospital School, where he was a Housemaster. In 2004 he moved to Worksop College as Deputy Head and he took over as Principal at Gordonstoun in 2011. Simon has two grown children. In his spare time he enjoys playing tennis, going for walks on the beach, running, cycling and following the news. Simon has a passion for literature and in particular poetry.