June 2017


  • Core values
    As statements of values go, ours at ASCL is simply magnificent, says Geoff Barton. It crystallises what we do, what we stand for and how we work: “We speak on behalf of members; we act on behalf of children and young people.” More
  • Leading the way
    Headteacher and ASCL member Janet Sheriff shares her journey on becoming the first ever black and minority ethnic (BME) secondary headteacher in Leeds and the only female headteacher her school had ever appointed. More
  • Time for change
    Tim Ramsey from LGBT+ organisation Just Like Us says that schools and colleges are key in facilitating open discussion and promoting tolerance and respect. Here, Tim shares his personal experience and says that leaders need to reaffirm their commitment to this issue. More
  • Refocus assessment
    Research Manager Dr David Thomas says that schools have been given an important opportunity to develop a bespoke assessment strategy focusing on pupils’ needs. Here he highlights a new resource designed to help schools achieve this. More
  • Invaluable experience
    ASCL Annual Conference is a priceless opportunity not to be missed says Headteacher and ASCL member Pepe Di’Iasio. Here he provides a summary of the highlights from this year’s event held in March. More
  • Building character
    Headmaster Dr Julian Murphy explains why helping students develop a toolkit of habits to ensure that they flourish is so important and how it can be incorporated into everyday teaching. More
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Headmaster Dr Julian Murphy explains why helping students develop a toolkit of habits to ensure that they flourish is so important and how it can be incorporated into everyday teaching.

Building character

When it comes to judging the quality of a school, academic success is often seen as the strongest indicator. For many parents, rigorous learning and strong exam performance influence where they send their children – but in my mind, this only tells half the story.

A true education is about more than acquiring knowledge. It is about developing virtue, wisdom and strength of character. For example, outstanding grades are unlikely to take you that far in the real world if you do not have the confidence to try new and difficult things and the strength of character to learn and grow from failure.

Providing the right toolkit

It is worth noting that simply adding character education to PSHE lessons, but not promoting it in other areas of school life, is likely to prove ineffective. Instead, I believe that it is about providing a toolkit of values and habits that are present in every aspect of school life. If you are serious about helping young people to develop virtues such as compassion, courage and charity then these virtues need to be part of the DNA of your school.

At Our Lady’s Convent School (OLCS), we live and breathe this ethos in even the smallest aspects of our day-to-day life and interactions. It helps that we have an open culture between students, staff and the senior leadership team in which everyone understands that they are part of one community and that the health and happiness of that community depends on their attitudes and habits more than on any formal rules.

How parents can help

Within a school, responsibility for teaching core values lies with the staff but parents always have a vital role to play. In the end, parents do more to shape the character of their children than any school can. So regular communication with families about the importance of character education helps to ensure that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. More often than not, parents see their children demonstrating the ideas we teach on a daily basis, so the positive impact is clear.

Alongside this, we hold workshops with parents to discuss ways of working in partnership on key issues like screen time, social media, bullying, stress and healthy working habits, in which we explore how family and school can best assist each other.

Teachers as models of the virtues

It is also vital that teachers do not simply tell pupils how they should behave but consistently model those behaviours themselves. Children and young people are not stupid. They instinctively understand the difference between propaganda and reality. If you want the pupils you teach to be open-minded, curious, self-critical and brave then you have to model those virtues yourself. This is why a school that is serious about character education cannot simply focus on the formal programme it delivers to pupils. It also needs to create a thoughtful and honest conversation with staff about what the key virtues we wish to promote mean in practice and how we can best model them in our own day-to-day conduct.

Genuinely seeing things from the child’s/young person’s perspective

Teachers must also work to create the right environment for pupils to live up to these values. Lesson observations are common practice in many places but how often do adults really take the time to see school life from a child’s perspective? I have found that teachers, and indeed parents and governors, benefit far more from spending one day shadowing a pupil to find out what it feels like to be in their shoes than from any number of lesson observations. Experiencing a whole day from the perspective of a pupil is the best way to formulate policy changes that are actually rooted in a contextualised experience of what things are like for the learner.

Helping pupils to flourish

One of the great positives about character education is that there is plenty of scope for schools to implement it according to their own long-held values. The government may have brought character education back into the spotlight but while national guidelines are a useful starting point, they should avoid being too prescriptive. Core values are likely to be similar between different schools, but there are also subtle differences that give each school its distinctive flavour as a community. For example, in secular schools, resilience and citizenship may be the core words used when talking about character but, as a Catholic school, we are likely to focus more heavily on concepts such as discipleship, service and compassion.

Young people today live in a media-saturated world. Amid this noise, it can be difficult for them to find time for reflection; it is all too easy to lose the capacity for deep thought and inner calm. As a school, we aim to build stillness and silence into the curriculum, whether through religious teaching, wider spiritual messages or simple opportunities for quiet and reflection.

While all pupils benefit from this kind of education, it can be particularly beneficial for those who come to us lacking in confidence or suffering from anxiety. We work hard to nurture these children and young people and give them the skills they need to grow and overcome any barriers that they may face.

As adults and teaching professionals, we have a responsibility to provide a toolkit that enables pupils to enjoy the best of our culture, cultivate the virtues that bring true happiness and develop a deep and brave hunger for lifelong growth and learning. We do this best through modelling virtues, creating a close relationship with parents and offering a broad and challenging curriculum that exposes pupils to what Victorian School Inspector Matthew Arnold called ‘the best that has been thought and said’ down the ages.

By the time they reach 18, we hope we have encouraged our own students to be ambitious but not materialistic, and confident but not arrogant. They should possess an inner calm and strength but, most importantly, understand what a rich and happy life looks like, both for themselves and others.

Experiencing a whole day from the perspective of a pupil is the best way to formulate policy changes that are actually rooted in a contextualised experience of what things are like for the learner.

Dr Julian Murphy is Headmaster of Our Lady’s Convent School, part of the Loughborough Endowed Schools Foundation.