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Opinion19th November 2019

Student character development: not just “the fluffy stuff”

Lekha Sharma

Lekha Sharma is a Deputy Principal at Ark Oval Primary Academy and leads on her school’s curriculum design and delivery. She has been teaching for eight years and has worked in a number of schools in both inner and outer London and the Midlands.


When I first started out teaching eight years ago, character development was seen as the ‘fluffy stuff’. It became very apparent to me early on in my career, particularly teaching in some of the most challenging areas in the country, that this was not the case. I instantly saw the impact exploring character had on my Year 6 pupils and the difference it made not only in their approach to their learning but to their interactions with one another outside of the classroom. Behaviour incidents were reduced, learning in the classroom felt more productive and they were generally happier kids.

The Department for Education recently published it’s ‘Character Education Framework’– guidance on character education and development for pupils outside of academia.

But what does character education mean in practice for school leaders and teachers and how can we foster a genuine and meaningful culture in our schools that develops character in the pupils that we serve?

‘Character is simply habits long continued’- Plato.

Pupils spend a large part of their lives in school, so we as educators are uniquely placed to not only impact our pupil’s academic development but to positively impact their development as human beings.

Instilling long-standing habits, as Plato postulates, helps us to shape our pupils and to ensure their behaviour and choices are rooted in qualities that will give them a strong set of core values and a sound sense of self.

When we truly reflect on what character is, this pursuit seems rather high stakes but with the right school culture, we can create environments where our pupils flourish both academically and personally. Here are three things we can do as schools to achieve this feat:

  1. Having the conversations- a PSHE curriculum that complements learning

When people think of character development in schools, they often default to thinking about ‘Circle Time’ or PSHE as the main arenas for this kind of learning. These subjects are crucial in the development of character, but they become even more powerful when they are meaningfully connected to subject matter across the curriculum. Explicit conversations about character, just like explicit instruction in knowledge acquisition in any subject, is crucial for understanding. For pupils to truly appreciate empathy, for example, we need to explain to them what empathy is, the thinking required to achieve an empathetic viewpoint and the consequences of a lack of empathy. This, of course, can be achieved through a discrete PSHE lesson but can also be achieved through English Literature and through the exploration of the expeditions of Don Quixote or the trials and tribulations of Bilbo Baggins. Similarly, conversations about the importance of charity and service to others can be prompted from an RE lesson on the concept of Tzedakah- the idea of philanthropy as seen as social justice by those of the Jewish faith. A PSHE curriculum that permeates across all subjects in the curriculum can ensure these big ideas are developed in context and as part of broader schemas of understanding.

  1. Modelling character- showing pupils how it’s done

Teaching is often compared to acting in the theatre – being ‘on stage’ for extended periods and performing. The two professions do indeed have similarities. But it’s in those brief moments at the theatre when the lights go down and you see the shadows of the actors shuffling around behind the curtain that the illusion of the show disappears, and you realise it’s just an act. Just like that, during ‘downtime’ from teaching, when you’re interacting with other teachers, walking from one end of the school to the other or grabbing a bite in the canteen, that pupils see how we behave as humans. It’s in these moments that we teach our pupils something – unintentionally. This goes both ways; it’s about being open when we get it right but also when we get it wrong. It’s about sharing that vulnerable, human side of us that we all have in common so that pupils can see the complexities of character and can see how the demands on us can try our patience and test our strength of character. When we discuss kindness and compassion with our pupils, we teach them a concept. When we show kindness and compassion to our pupils, we teach them the skill of employing these virtues in the real world day-to-day. And as we well know, demonstrating how something is done explicitly to our pupils repeatedly is the best way for it to embed in their long- term memory and, when it comes to character traits, their long-term habits.

  1. Exploring great character- case studies of those who have come before

Opportunities to demonstrate our values and virtues can enrich pupils’ understanding of character but isn’t always possible in our busy school day. Luckily, we have a wealth of truly great individuals to turn to straight from our history books. Exploring case studies of individuals can provide insight into how people have shown character in the most testing of times. In our school, each class is named after a noteworthy role model who is studied by the pupils when they join the class in September. Giving pupils the opportunity to look across historical eras allows them to gain a true appreciation of what connects us to these truly spectacular individuals- our capability to adopt the outlooks and mental attitude they had to overcome and to achieve. In Year 2, our pupils study Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the courage he showed during the civil rights movement. In Year 5, our pupils learn about how Emeline Pankhurst organised the suffragette movement through sheer determination and faith. They come to realise what these values meant for society and the impact one’s character can have on the world.

Through this they come to see that character is timeless and can help them to not only take their place in the world but to make a real and lasting difference in it.