Character education is a crucial component of a good education. A large research study of good repute looked for the character traits that correlate most highly with success in life.  The study identified the top 24 traits.  Twenty-four is too many to remember for most people, however, so here are the top 7 in decreasing order of importance:

  1. Zest: approaching life with excitement and energy; feeling alive and activated
  2. Grit: finishing what one starts; completing something despite obstacles; a combination of persistence and resilience.
  3. Self-control: regulating what one feels and does; being self-disciplined
  4. Curiosity: taking an interest in experience for its own sake; finding things fascinating
  5. Social intelligence: being aware of motives and feelings of other people and oneself
  6. Gratitude: being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen
  7. Hope (Optimism): expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it

I talk about these a lot in assembly, particularly zest; the phrase ‘not apathy but zest’ has become so familiar to Birkdale students that it provokes a smile every time I use it! Several parents have told me that they cannot look at the amazon logo with its a to z arrow without thinking of the phrase.

Birkdale places, and has always placed, great emphasis on developing ‘character’, more usually expressed as the desire to turn out well-rounded people. In the words of part of the school’s mission statement, ‘We aim to give all pupils a strong academic education, while developing them as whole individuals prepared for their wider role as responsible citizens willing to serve the community’. Here are five points about character education:

Firstly, it is perfectly possible to achieve both excellent examination results and produce well-rounded students; there is no dichotomy between high academic standards and character education and in fact people with zest and grit tend to secure better examination grades for obvious reasons.

Secondly, character education cannot be taught through explicitly focused lessons. Timetabling innovations which schedule a lesson on grit for 14 year olds followed by a double lesson of Maths are doomed to failure, although the latter might well help students to learn grit as well as curiosity.  What would one do in a ‘grit’ lesson?

Thirdly, developing character requires students to feel part of a community and to have a wide range of opportunities. Real communities always strengthen honesty, integrity and dignity as individuals absorb the collective values which are regularly and systematically articulated.  Participating in sports teams, musical ensembles, drama productions, Duke of Edinburgh expeditions and so on all encourage grit and social intelligence.  Charitable fund raising and volunteering promote community spirit.  Assemblies provide opportunities for shared experience and reflection, engendering some sense of social intelligence as well as stimulating gratitude and hope and infecting many with zest.

Fourthly, developing character requires students to have excellent relationships with skilled teachers: at Birkdale the Form Tutors actively encourage students to be involved with appropriate activities that will build particular character strengths in the individual. A shy student may be encouraged to try some debating or public speaking to develop confidence and social intelligence.  Equally, a brash peer who finds it difficult to recognise the contribution of others may be helped to participate in a choir and experience the power of collective endeavour leading to greater social intelligence.  In some year groups we ask students to rate themselves in each of the 7 character traits and think about how they may address their weaknesses.  Repeating the exercise a year later is a powerful way for the students to judge their own progress and take responsibility for their personal growth.  In a relatively small school, the teachers get to know each student extremely well.

Fifthly, Birkdale has a curriculum that deliberately includes topics and opportunities to develop curiosity. Each subject area covers the standard National Curriculum material but departments also have time to tackle extra material chosen to stimulate interest.  Higher up the school the Extended Project Qualification allows Sixth Form students to achieve accreditation for completing a curiosity-driven research project.  Birkdale also runs a London Research Trip; potential student researchers pitch an idea for a project to members of staff and the winners receive support from the school to travel to London and make use of libraries, museums, galleries and university staff to research their idea.  Upon returning from the capital, the winning students provide a substantial talk to staff, parents and students as well as a summary of their findings to the whole school in an assembly.

I am much encouraged that the days of schools being judged solely on examination results now seem very much to be numbered.  Great schools have always been about preparing students for life and not just for GCSE.