December 2017


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    The future is never certain in the world of education says Geoff Barton. However, one thing leaders can rely on is that ASCL will continue to protect, defend and advise them. More
  • Preparation is key
    New data protection laws will apply from next year and schools and colleges must prepare for them now says Daljit Kaur, Associate at Browne Jacobson. More
  • Head first
    In a bid to equip young people with the tools to navigate their mental health and build their self-esteem, mental health organisation The Self-Esteem Team shares its top tips for staff and pupils. More
  • Time to speak out
    LGBT+ students need more role models among their teachers if they are to come out with confidence, says Daniel Gray, one of the organisers of new support and advocacy group LGBTed. More
  • Leading character education
    As discussion grows around character education, researchers David Sims and Matt Walker from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) highlight key findings from a new research project into the ways that five pioneering schools are leading character education within their settings. More
  • The gift of knowledge
    In celebration of the 100th issue of ASCL's Leader magazine, we asked senior leaders to share one piece of advice they would give to their younger selves if they were starting their first leadership role today. Here's what they said... More
  • Unfair shares
    Sam Ellis, Susan Fielden and Julia Harnden test out the National Funding Formula (NFF) and find it wanting. More
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As discussion grows around character education, researchers David Sims and Matt Walker from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) highlight key findings from a new research project into the ways that five pioneering schools are leading character education within their settings.

Leading character education

There has been a lot of recent interest in character education that can be broadly described as an approach to developing values, attitudes and behaviours that are thought to support young people’s development and contribute to their success in school and in adult life. These qualities include respect, leadership, motivation, resilience, self-control, self-confidence, social and emotional skills, and communication skills.

The DfE’s Strategy Overview 2015–20 ( znkcjzf) highlights the importance of preparing pupils for adult life by developing their character and resilience “to boost their academic attainment, employability and ability to engage in society as active citizens”. A recent Confederation of British Industry (CBI)/Pearson education and skills survey (https:// found that young people’s attitude to work, demonstrated through skills such as resilience, teamwork and leadership, is the most important factor for employers when recruiting school or college leavers.

Why is character education important?

Implementing character education in schools can provide a strong basis for academic achievement and prepare young people for the future. However, leadership is key in delivery.

A new research-based practice guide, Leading Character Education in Schools, alongside a number of school case studies, provides teachers with practical insights and first-hand accounts of different approaches to leading character education. Commissioned by ASCL and Pearson, and conducted by NFER researchers, development of the guide involved visits to five schools (two primaries and three secondaries), all past winners of the DfE’s Character Award.

How is character education being led in schools?

The research-based practice guide has identified the significant role that senior leaders play in driving character education, as this academy principal made clear:

“To be successful, I think it [character education] needs to sit at a very senior level [within the leadership of a school]. Changing ethos and structures requires hard decisions to be made.”

We found that senior leaders are leading character education in three main ways by:

  1. highlighting the importance of character education as being central to the culture, values and vision of the school
  2. taking a whole-school approach to developing the character of pupils
  3. exemplifying and communicating positive character traits themselves in the way they interact with governors, colleagues, pupils and parents

We also found that the leadership of character education is distributed, with heads of department, heads of year and curriculum leaders often taking responsibility for leading specific aspects of provision.

What is the impact of character education?

Senior leaders in this small-scale research identified a range of impacts that they associated with their character education work. Beyond the development of specific pupil attributes, such as self-confidence and leadership skills, they reported improvements in:

  • the ethos and culture of their schools, which was associated with developing a better learning environment
  • pupils’ behaviour and attendance
  • pupils’ emotional wellbeing
  • expectations of pupil performance
  • the proportion of young people going to university

This primary headteacher highlighted the benefits to her school: “It [the character education work] has impacted on attendance, on academic achievement, on pastoral and welfare and behaviour. We wouldn’t have got that [recent Ofsted] judgement [of Outstanding] if we hadn’t got those things in place.”

Despite these self-reported improvements, there is a need for more robust measures of the impact of character education. Without this evidence, it is not possible to compare the relative effectiveness and impacts of different approaches to its leadership and/or delivery.

Key features of effective leadership of character education in schools

From our study, we identified five key features of effective leadership of character education:

  1. Senior leaders must drive it and all teachers must deliver it. Senior leaders are the driving force behind the leadership of character education. All teachers and support staff are responsible for delivering character development in lessons and other learning activities. Senior leaders also provide pupils with meaningful opportunities to share their experiences, perspectives, insights and views as part of an ongoing dialogue with staff about how well the school is performing.
  2. Place at the core of the school ethos. Developing pupils’ character is essential to schools’ values, culture and purpose, and therefore is not an optional ‘nice-to-have’ or a marginal part of the education that the schools provide. Staff and pupils are encouraged to live and apply shared values such as respect and tolerance in their daily life in school. Placed at the core of the school’s ethos, character education permeates all aspects of what the school does and how it operates.
  3. Take a long-term approach. Developing or transforming an institutional culture underpinned with shared values and principles is an incremental process. Effective leadership of character education entails taking a long-term approach, typically five years or more. This journey of development and application is often linked to the school’s strategy aimed at improving its reputation, pupil enrolment, learning environment, standards of behaviour, pastoral support, academic and wider achievement performance, and standing in the local community.
  4. Build a collective understanding and language. Achieving a shared understanding of what character education is, and how to support its delivery, requires the school community to develop a common language to explore, agree and communicate the meaning of key concepts, such as ‘character’, ‘values’, ‘principles’ and ‘traits’. A common language and shared understanding facilitates communication between staff, between pupils and staff, and between pupils and pupils, which is required for putting into action meaningful character development.
  5. Maintain focus, momentum and ongoing communication. The effective leadership of character education requires maintaining a focus on what it is, why it is important and what it aims to achieve. A key related leadership task is sustaining the momentum of a whole-school approach to providing a learning environment and activities that help to develop young people’s character.

We hope that, by presenting these key messages from our study, other school and college leaders will find ideas and inspiration for developing their own approaches and successfully implementing character education.

Update: On Monday 9 October 2017, the DfE announced that the Character Grant programme has been replaced with a £22 million Essential Life Skills programme. The DfE said the new programme would provide “extra-curricular activities, such as sports, volunteering and social action projects, which give pupils the opportunity to develop leadership skills”. These are all themes that are explored as part of our case studies.

About the research

The research was commissioned by ASCL and Pearson, and undertaken by NFER between November 2016 and July 2017. Project outputs include a case-study report, an emerging practice guide and a bibliography of recent research, reports and resources that can be found at:

David Sims
Research Director at NFER

Matt Walker
Senior Research Manager
(Impact) at NFER