I was delighted to attend the Department for Education’s Character Symposium last month, particularly as Abdullahi Ali Aden, a former ReachOut mentee, was asked to address the audience alongside Nicky Morgan MP, Secretary of State for Education.  Ali also sat on the panel for a Q&A session with Ms. Morgan and did a great job talking about character in the ‘real’ sense throughout.

And that’s what I want to write about today. It’s great that Nicky Morgan and the DfE have chosen to promote character education, because I believe this can be a game changing differentiator in the lives of our most disadvantaged children, and our society as a whole.  The DfE is talking with increasing clarity on what character is, but this conversation is still muddled as organisations and schools try to work out how government policy and character links to their existing work and how to implement these new ideas in working practice.

Since I started thinking more in this space, I’ve heard many things being referred to as character, such as well-being (including confidence and self-esteem), employability skills (such as leadership and teamwork) and mental health.  Following a report by the Sutton Trust last month, personality has become the latest inclusion in this clumsy grouping of terminologies which is confusing schools, charities, press and politicians alike. Nicky Morgan made a good start towards clarifying the issue at the Character Symposium by clearly referencing character, well-being and mental health as separate entities that we need to deliver for our kids, which is helpful, and hopefully the rest of this article will clarify further.

Character is about the qualities that enable a person to lead a good life and be a positive contributor to society; not necessarily to be ‘successful’ and climb the social mobility ladder.  Of course all these factors are very much linked together, but ‘success’, considered in the economic or career sense, isn’t what character is really about.  A person of good character might be a shop assistant, a stay at home parent, a celebrity footballer or a prime minister.  They could be rich or poor, loud or quiet. Character isn’t about professions, social mobility, earning more money, being a leader, an inspiration or even a person everyone admires – it’s about being a good person, someone who consistently makes the world around them better in small ways or large, and we need to remember that when we think about what we want to achieve with our various interventions to help young people in this space.

At ReachOut we have four character strengths which we support our young people to develop, and by doing so we help them grow up to be better people.  They are Self-Control, Staying Power, Fairness and Good Judgement.  A person who possesses all four of these strengths in good measure will be a good person. This person of good character will be a benefit to our society, not because they are likely to earn good money in a high flying career, but because they will be honest, hard-working, considerate of others and measured in their behaviour.  This person of good character will make the choices that lead to emotional well-being, and will be able to apply themselves to learn skills to the best of their ability. This person will choose to utilise such skills in the best way possible for themselves, their family and community, and they will have improved personal circumstances as a consequence of this careful decision making. Their personality, extravert or introvert in whichever sense of the word you mean it, or whether they have the aptitude and desire to become a future world leader or a celebrity footballer, won’t affect whether they become a good person, but their character, and the actions it produces, will.

Edward Timpson MP, Minister for Children & Families, closed the event, and in his speech he spoke of ‘demystifying character’ as something we are doing by discussing it at events like the Symposium. And yet I fear that by talking about character in such a vague and broad fashion we are doing the contrary – becoming increasingly confused about what we mean by character, and what we actually want to change. 

Why is this terminology so important?  Because if we can’t identify what character is at the most fundamental level and communicate that effectively, then our work and effort in trying to build young people’s character will instead be used up in a series of interventions labelled as character, but really targeting other areas, many of which we’ve been pushing for years – such as promoting well-being or providing employability or life skills.  These causes are extremely valuable to our children and young people, but they are not the same thing as character education.  If we misplace our efforts to build character in this generation of school children we may waste the momentum in the field, and fail to make the difference we’re really looking for, for our children and our society as a whole.  So let’s be clear about what we mean when we say character education, and make sure we get it right!

Peter Blackwell
ReachOut CEO