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Building Character and Resilience in Schools

Resilience road sign

Should we use lessons and the time a young person spends at school to build their character and resilience?

We have recently seen the launch of the Character and Resilience Manifesto from the all Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Mobility, which has been produced in collaboration with the CentreForum think-tank and a call from Tristram Hunt, the shadow educations secretary for schools to focus more on this area because of the benefits it will bring, and particularly for those predicted to have more negative outcomes.

The parliamentary report suggests the need to concentrate more widely than just on academic measures of success as children move through the education system and into the workplace.

Among its recommendations is the extension of pupil premium into pre-school education, extra curricula activities should be a more formal part of teacher contracts and students should receive certificates in this area to demonstrate their experience and skills to employers.

It also wants the standards watchdog Ofsted to build “character and resilience” measures into its inspection framework, and for teacher training and career development programmes to “explicitly focus” on this area.

In truth this is not a new call to action. You can find research and recommendations going back to the early 90s suggesting the same things and yet in many schools it remains an area left too much to chance.

Toby Young, the journalist and author set out in the Telegraph arguments why there wasn’t the evidence to give this classroom time, although he wasn’t suggesting it was a complete waste of time and wasn’t about to abandon the extra curricula activity at the West London free school he set up.

I think we aren’t clear about what teaching character and resilience means. Young people learn consciously and unconsciously from those around them – their environment and role models as well as what they are taught. Many of them pick up behaviours and habits that are going to hold them back throughout their lives, and we see this every day in the leadership work we do in schools and business with people who you would say are already successful.

It would be helpful if we defined what we mean by character – strong self-belief, a positive mindset, the perseverance to stick to a task and the ability to bounce back from life’s set-backs. We can also add other life skills that need to be taught such as communication and public speaking. They are all qualities that will have a major impact on life chances, both during education and later.

The purpose of teaching is to impart knowledge and why is raising awareness and sharing how successful people develop these traits any different to showing them how to do maths, english, science, languages, geography, history and all the other ‘academic’ subjects we teach. By adding character and resilience to the curriculum we actually make the teaching of the other subjects far more relevant for many students who will better see where school fits in with the goals they want to achieve.

My view may be seen to come with a vested interest (and I do have a vested interest) as among other things we have developed and sell lessons that help schools and teachers to build character and resilience in young people.

I am also a parent and school governor and someone who devotes a lot of time to supporting others in becoming outstandingly successful. So did it really need a report to argue that having the things I shared above – strong self-belief, a positive mindset, the perseverance to stick to a task and the ability to bounce back from life’s set-backs are all qualities that will have a major impact on life chances, both during education and later.

Not for me and what about you?

Baroness Claire Tyler (a member of the Parliamentary group) said they had seen

Clear evidence that what are often misleadingly called ‘soft skills’ actually lead to hard results.

In other words teaching young people those common traits, qualities and skills of highly successful people will lead to many young people raising their ambition and achieving much greater success in exam results and in employment or in becoming their own boss. It seems obvious to me, though in talking with many school leaders they don’t always seem to see it (often hidden in their lack of time to think and current focus).

She went on to say

However many GCSEs you have, where you are on the character scale will have a big impact on what you achieve in life.

By teaching young people these skills, helping them find the things they will be great at early in life and showing them how relevant their schooling is to achieving these things will also, in my view, increase the number and grades of the GCSEs they get too.

Damian Hinds, the chairman of the APPG on Social Mobility said self-belief, drive and perseverance were

Key to achievement at school and at work…But they are not just inherent traits, they can be developed in young people.

And yes these traits can be taught.  We do it all the time with older people who also have to unlearn or change their embedded unhelpful habits and behaviours first. We also provide our resources to teachers who tell us that they are able to see quick changes in behaviours and results in their students. So it is much easier to start young.

The real secret of course is in addition to teaching character and resilience as specific lessons we need all teachers to role model and use the same approach across all other lessons too. This is where transformation in performance and results lie.

The Confederation of British Industry has been promoting a similar agenda for some time.  The CBI’s director-general, John Cridland warned that schools were in danger of becoming

Exam factories, churning out people who are not sufficiently prepared for life outside the school gates. As this important report shows, alongside academic rigour we also need schools to produce rounded and grounded young people who have the skills and behaviours that businesses want.

The chairman of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Alan Milburn, described the report as “valuable”.

Schools must do more to promote character skills as well as academic attainment, It is not a question of either-or; the core business of a school must be to do both.

Education Secretary Michael Gove also stressed the importance of extra-curricular activities.

As top heads and teachers already know, sports clubs, orchestras and choirs, school plays, cadets, debating competitions all help to build character and instil grit, to give children’s talents an opportunity to grow and to allow them to discover new talents they never knew they had.

For me it has to go much further though. It cannot be just about extra curricular activities as the education secretary seems to think, valuable as they are. I have been fortunate to work alongside and support many successful people – leaders in business and education, Olympians and other individuals from a range of sectors.

All of them have character and resilience and many other common traits that have enabled them to stand out and achieve great things and in the face of significant obstacles and many naysayers.

When listening to their stories one thing often jumps out. They can pinpoint the start of their success journey to a particular instance, experience or person. For many Olympians it was another Olympian they saw and they can state the Olympics and the event that started them on their path, while many leaders point to particular mentors or experiences they had.

In most cases there was some catalyst and then ongoing support that made it far more likely they would succeed. The majority, though, do not have this catalytic event or the role models or support needed. Particularly those from challenging backgrounds who consciously and unconsciously pick up behaviours and habits that at best are unhelpful and at worst take them down the wrong paths.

I experienced this myself as someone who coasted through school and only after many years of work did I begin to understand and more importantly start to use tools and techniques that have helped me to succeed. It is why I am so passionate about this as I know there are so many more things I would have done and achieved if I had been taught some of the qualities and skills that young people can learn now.

We owe it to them and to ourselves to treat this like we would any other important subject.

Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said the report

Tackles one of the most pressing questions currently facing our education system: how do we educate resilient young people that have a sense of moral purpose and character, as well as being passionate, reflective learners?

The simplest way is to provide lessons in it and to ensure every teacher is onboard and role modelling those same traits.

Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers said education was

About skills and knowledge transmission, but also about personal development all round. It remains the case, however, that the present curriculum and high-stakes testing are far too rigid. The personal development of pupils is very important. This will not be achieved unless the obsession with testing and targets ends. Extra-curricular activities are certainly a way of ensuring all pupils have the same access to a range of activities and interests.

She also warned that teachers were already working at full capacity.

Time is finite, as are school budgets,” she said, “teachers cannot be expected to do more.

I have huge sympathy for the challenges faced in schools and the number of messages received and think the development of these traits is just too important to ignore.

Teaching success skills such as character, resilience, leadership, teamwork and communication will enable every child to have the best chance of fulfilling their potential and achieving success. And it should’t be an either or…academic or skills?

It has to be both and by starting to teach these in primary schools and in the early years of secondary we will not only develop young people ready to take the stage for their successful lives but will guarantee many of them do far better in their exams too…something that would help every school achieve their targets now.

Don’t be one of the leaders that thinks this is just too hard given all the other demands on your and your teachers time.  Whether you need resources or not (and we would be happy to show you ours) start now, even if it is only small steps. Taking that first step is usually the biggest challenge.

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