Educators who act as role models are vital to schools that place character education at the heart of their vision, according to a new study by the University of Birmingham in England.

The research reveals the importance of staff viewing themselves as character educators, aiding the development of a shared “virtue literacy” among students at primary and secondary level.

Experts assessed the students’ ability to reason autonomously, suggesting school activities that encourage independent critical thinking and reflection help with moral decision-making.

The researchers focused on three local schools in Birmingham – two secondary and one primary – that place character at the heart of their ethos. Researchers explored the perceptions of teaching staff and pupils using a combination of interviews and a survey of pupils.

Character education was both implicitly and explicitly taught in all three schools, with active steps taken to help ensure that good character was also sought by the pupils – particularly in the secondary schools.

The study found some evidence to suggest that pupils at the University of Birmingham School and the city’s Nishkam High School displayed higher levels of moral reasoning, when compared with a national survey of more than 10,000 pupils.

On average, pupils across these schools displayed over 50% agreement with an expert panel in responding to moral dilemmas as opposed to 43% nationally.

Personal qualities with a strong moral dimension, such as honesty, respect and gratitude, were also more likely to be selected as being important to students when compared with other qualities.

“This is an interesting and encouraging finding given that so much of the rhetoric around character education tends to be tied up with discussions about performance virtues such as grit and resilience,” says researcher Tom Harrison. “The important thing is that virtues such as resilience are targeted towards activities that contribute to common good and enable individuals and societies to flourish.”

The report coincides with widespread interest in the promotion of character education in schools.

The development of character has been identified as one of the strategic priorities in the UK’s Department for Education’s Strategy 2015-2020, and a taught approach to character is championed in the book by Rt. Hon. Nicky Morgan MP Taught Not Caught: Educating for 21st Century Character.

In the report’s Foreword, Gary Lewis, Chair of the Association for Character Education, echoes the report’s findings on the importance of a whole-school approach to character education so that it permeates “all aspects of the school community, including the curriculum”.

“Employers are now making it abundantly clear successful applicants for jobs need much more than a string of examination results,” says Lewis.

“They want individuals who are able to work collaboratively in teams, to show leadership and initiative when necessary, and perhaps most importantly, they want employees who are able to interact confidently, politely and with emotional intelligence.

“These requirements sum up the aims of character education in a nutshell.”

The report found pupil engagement was enhanced by both staff commitment to character development and the careful planning of the academic and non-academic curriculum.

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