The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Building Character and Resilience

What gives us character? What makes us resilient? These are two of the questions I look forward to grappling with as I chair the group announced by the Secretary of State Damian Hinds in his recent speech focussing on this topic. The discussions and consultations which lie ahead for our group will shape the recommendations we make to the Secretary of State in the autumn. I share some initial thoughts here.

Character is a very broad term which at its most expansive covers nearly all of what we are as people. While there may be aspects of our character which are influenced by our genetic make up, our life experiences, including our educational experiences, have an enormously significant role to play. That means character education should concern schools.

The interplay between academic education and wider character development deserves some reflection. First and foremost, we must be very wary of appearing to set up a tension between the two. A focus on character development cannot be seen as an alternative to strong academic education, and I would argue that we are failing in our mission as educators if we believe it is not our job to worry about character development, but rather just to focus on examination results. Indeed, schools’ purpose should be to shape, or form, the whole person, academic and character. Taken together, these are likely to be predictive of both a successful and a fulfilled life.

We are all very used to metrics for academic progress, the most significant of which is examination results. So dominant have these been in recent decades, that, as Ofsted amongst others now acknowledge, they have had a distorting effect on the quality of education more widely. When we think about character education, there is understandably a desire to find metrics to measure the effectiveness of what we do in this domain. I would be cautious about seeing examination results alone as such a metric.

So what makes up character? Certainly, what the psychologist Angela Duckworth calls ‘grit’ has an important role to play. This seems to be close to what others would call self-efficacy or the broadly overlapping concept of resilience. In his new book The Marshmallow Test the veteran psychologist Walter Mischel talks about the importance of a well-developed ‘executive function’ for self-regulation. These concepts all touch on the ability to persevere through setbacks and challenges towards a long term goal because of a well-developed sense of self belief and an ability to control impulses and temptations. The best things in life take time, perseverance and focus to achieve; by definition those who have these character qualities will be more likely to get them.

C S Lewis said “education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man [sic] a more clever devil.” History is full of examples of those who certainly had grit, self belief and perseverance, but used it to the detriment of their fellow human beings. Alongside grit, we also need to consider how we can develop positive character traits, or virtues, for example honesty, integrity, generosity and humility.

No-one can fail to be aware of the challenges in mental health being faced in our society today, not least among the young. Rising statistics for depression, anxiety, and, tragically, suicide among young people must spur us all to leave no stone unturned. The charity Mind identifies five key ways to promote mental well-being, and I was struck how closely related these are both to content we have identified for Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) and to what we might call ‘character’. They are:

  • Connect (with people, ideally face to face)
  • Be active (physically, including outside)
  • Take notice
  • Learn (continually, new things)
  • Give (focus on the other, on our community, be of service)
    (Text in brackets is mine).

The American David Brooks in his excellent book The Road to Character writes powerfully about the life-shaping importance of firm, long-term commitments for human happiness and security. In shaping our recommendations we will certainly be exploring the link between character and well-being, and what role we can play in schools to equip young people even better for the challenges that may lie ahead for them whilst building our collective life.

While there may be aspects of our character which are influenced by our genetic make up, our life experiences, including our educational experiences, have an enormously significant role to play.

Ian Bauckham

Like many things, character is linked both to disadvantage and social mobility. Study after study tells us that children from less advantaged backgrounds are less likely to end up not only with weaker self-belief and less ‘grit’, but also less experience of many extra curricular activities than their more advantaged peers. Playing a musical instrument, appreciating classical music, speaking formally in public, belonging to a team or organised club, visiting great museums, going on a country walk – all simple things, but all things you are less likely to have done outside school if you are disadvantaged. Whatever the impact on examination results, a lack of experience in these and other areas puts young people at a social disadvantage in comparison with their peers, and in turn impacts negatively on confidence.

I am looking forward to working with colleagues in schools and beyond to shape a set of recommendations which I hope will enable us to build still further on the great work already being done in so many schools and recognise the importance of character for success and fulfilment in later life.