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All across the world, educational establishments are more aware than ever of the need to put a positive culture at the heart of their curriculum.

Most schools have some kind of character programme in place, using their own vernacular to describe it. Happiness, well-being, mindfulness, ethics, moral education – the list goes on. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what language schools use, as long as they are paying more than lip service to their programme and its ability to improve outcomes and opportunities for children.

Building a culture of character should be based on four key areas:

  1. Common Understanding (shared values and virtues)
  2. Positive Relationships (community and giving)
  3. Communication and Connectedness (taking notice of what you and others say and do)
  4. Learning through Experiences (growing and developing practical wisdom)

When a school has successfully achieved a culture of character, its community is happy, productive and cohesive. Obvious manifestations are eye contact between pupils and adults, door opening, courteous, respectful behaviour to peers as well as to those in positions of authority. Pupils are able to listen and are confident in their enquiry. Acts of kindness are in evidence. Acceptance of and pride in diversity is obvious. Bullying is at a minimum and when present, dealt with quickly, quietly and constructively. Determination, self-expression, resilience and tenacity become expected and positively impact learning outcomes.

Creating a culture of character is harder than it sounds. It involves so much more than crafting an ethos or wordsmithing a framework of values – although these need to be done. To really have an impact, a character programme must be embedded into everything the school stands for and there must be a tangible link between the programme’s vision and the academic and life skills children develop, as a result of it. Most importantly, it must be championed by senior leadership.

A successful character programme engages the entire school community – children, staff, school leadership, parents, facilities staff, catering teams and more. And it is woven into everything, strategically and with passion.

Research informs us that children who develop strong character and a solid sense of well-being are more likely to become confident, independent thinkers which inevitably leads to success in school and more importantly, in life. Children who understand what ethical decision making is and who have explored how to navigate moral dilemmas will be better equipped to deal with life’s challenges.

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

While some children are born with self-assurance and personal resolve, more are not, and so depend on their families and their school communities to help them grow in these areas. The responsibility on educators in our modern, pressurised digital era has never been greater.

Creating a culture of character in a school takes time. It has to be brought alive through every single aspect of the school, from displays in the corridors to the cross-curricular programme, and from the focus of assemblies to the actions and demeanour of the staff. Target setting, curriculum maps, reporting, marketing and lesson planning must support the values and competency framework that forms the backbone of the school.

Character development is not the purview of any one team. It can’t be just an extra layer. It has to be endemic. Character cannot be treated as a second-class citizen, or a bolt-on, rather it needs to be inherent in all teaching and learning, underpinning every child’s academic, co-curricular and pastoral timetable. The best schools already know this and are working hard to ensure that this critical and evolving bedrock of education is cultivated and grown successfully.

By: Natassja Williams