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Our CEO muses over the place of character education in schools

Whilst we spend much time supporting young people run their own campaigns on the issues that matter most to them, we are at last seeing progress in the campaign that matters most to us. Parliament may be stuck in a Brexit quagmire, but the past few months have been an exciting period of progress on the policy issue closest to our hearts at Envision: character education. 

I was recently invited by DfE to be part of a consultation group on character education experts alongside such notables Dame Julia Cleverdon and Sir Anthony Seldon. Given our relatively small size, I am immensely proud that due to our sound evidence base, Envision is regarded as having something of value to contribute at such influential levels.

My first thoughts in this meeting were relief. It was clear that civil servants were not going to allow those present to spend the next three hours debating a definition of character as is so often the case at these gatherings.

I don’t deny that character is a complex issue, but it is this complexity which has so often stood in the way of building up any kind of evidence base or strategy on policy and practice. The Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, is a brave man, he has risked criticism of dumbing down by providing a simple definition with four clear elements:

“First you have to believe you can achieve. You have to be able to stick with the task in hand and see a link between effort today and payback sometime in the future, even if it’s uncertain or rather a long way off. Finally, you need to develop the ability to bounce back from the knocks that life inevitably brings to all of us”.

He is equally simplistic and focused about how character is best to be developed, drawing on Angela Duckworth’s work on Grit, which underpins much of our practice at Envision. Duckworth advocates that one of the ways we can build up our chances of building character is if we commit to ‘one hard thing’.

In recent speeches, Hinds has repeatedly stated that “confidence comes from taking chances and seeing things work out; and it also comes from trying to do something - a project, an activity - until you get it right; it comes from learning ways to cope with whatever the task in hand is and it calls for bravery, gumption, maybe even a stubborn determination to succeed.”

It is easy for Envision to welcome this focus, given that it so clearly reflects our own. Our Community-Apprentice programme is primarily about developing self-efficacy and determination by giving young people the opportunity to tackle an issue they care passionately about and supporting them to keep trying in the face of setbacks.

So, does this mean that our time has come and that the Envision programme can now become part of mainstream education provision? One thing that might support this is another welcome development in the form of a new Ofsted inspection framework which places clear importance on personal development and positive attitudes.

Giving schools permission to develop the personal character of pupils is a huge step forward, but permission is not the same thing as a requirement. Without a statutory requirement, it seems unlikely that the majority of schools will be able to justify using overstretched resources for personal development programmes.

The Secretary of State has made it clear he does not see these resources coming from government funds stating that: “We all have an interest in making sure that young people grow up resilient, resourceful and confident in their abilities. It’s not something we can subcontract to schools. This is not about a DfE plan for building character. It has to be about schools learning from other schools, it’s about business pitching in when it can, it’s about community groups speaking up and inviting schools in. It’s about individual adults volunteering. All of us need to work together, using the wide range of resources and experts that there are out there.”

This is where I depart to some extent from Mr Hinds views. I would regard character as too important in young people’s development to be left as a funding dependant bolt-on – otherwise why is it being given such prominence in Ofsted? That said, I recognise that there are huge pressures on the public purse and many organisations already working in this area who simply need to join up better.

It seems to me that Envision is in both the strongest and most vulnerable place in its history. There is at last growing consensus of the need for education to develop the self-efficacy and persistence of young people. The risk is that people will now think this is the role of the state, yet we receive virtually no statutory funding. What the DfE and Ofsted are providing however is a policy and inspection framework which empowers schools, businesses and charities to join forces to support young people. Envision is determined to continue to be that convenor for partners who want to be part of an evidence-backed solution, especially for young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. I for one am determined to help prepare young people to contribute to Britain’s future, be that in Europe or outside it!