Peter Blackwell, CEO ReachOut, explains why character development is crucial to achieving educational equality.
ReachOut has recently been invited to join the Fair Education Alliance (FEA), a national coalition of organisations working to bring about change in education and help end the persistent achievement gap between young people from our poorest communities and their wealthier peers.
We’re excited to be involved in working to ensure young people develop key strengths, including resilience and wellbeing, to support high aspirations. I’m particularly happy to hear the FEA talking about key strengths (or what ReachOut would call character virtues) with a view to supporting high aspirations, rather than focusing on developing aspiration in itself. Whilst developing aspiration is no doubt valuable, ReachOut’s experience over the last 20 years has shown us that most young people already aspire to achieve, to be successful and happy in their personal lives and careers. The problem most often lies in a lack of character that prevents them from achieving these goals, and consequently impacts their emotional well-being.
That’s why it is so important that we’re talking about character development in education, and I’m keen to lend ReachOut’s expertise to the conversation about what character is, why we should be paying attention to it, and what character virtues we should be fostering in our young people at school.
Firstly, I think we need to actively expand the character discussion beyond resilience, grit and determination, and the popular message that pursuing ‘tough’ activities such as rugby and army cadets is our sole solution. There’s so much more to humanity’s successes than the ability to endure and persevere. In order for our young people to flourish, we must widen the work we do to include performance, civic and moral virtues (as collectively described by the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtue).
ReachOut has identified four key virtues that are present in a person of good character - someone who leads a good life and makes a positive contribution to society – and that enable us to consider performance, civic and moral virtues all together.
Staying Power – resilience, grit, the ability to stick at something, to honour commitments, to see tasks through to the end.
Self-Control – the ability to keep emotions in check and to choose to act (or not to act) in a certain way despite how we may feel.
Fairness – to treat others with respect and empathy, honouring rights and responsibilities, and being honest.
Good Judgement – the ability to consider consequences and make decisions that benefit both ourselves AND those affected by our choice.
These are the same four character virtues that Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and St Thomas Aquinas wrote about as far back as 380BC. Good Judgement (sometimes called Wisdom, or Phronesis by the Greeks) is almost like a ‘master’ character virtue, exercised constantly in practice of Staying Power, Self-Control and Fairness.
We keep things simple so that our young people can find talking about character as accessible as possible. That’s why we’ve chosen the language we have, and why we’ve cut down what we talk about to just four, all encompassing, virtues. We think these four character virtues can be used to express or break down the many other qualities mentioned in the character conversation into their constituent parts – for example Tolerance, a powerful combination of Fairness and Self-Control.
So why does character matter so much? A person of good character will make the right choices that help them to succeed in whatever it is they are pursuing, be it GCSEs, career, family life, whatever. Those choices range from the small but significant, such as choosing to study instead of playing that extra hour of PS4, to huge ones like deciding not to pursue an affair that one knows may destroy your family. I’m a firm believer that people are defined by their actions, not their words, and character is the foundation of the line of choices that generates the transcript of our lives.
It is a lack of character that so often leads to people making bad choices at key moments of their lives, as opposed to a lack of ability or poor teaching, with crushing long term results. This is why it is so critically important that we are foster good character in everyone, and we are likely to see the biggest benefits among those most disadvantaged in our society.
At ReachOut our mentees, mentors and staff talk about all four of our character virtues frequently, building up an understanding of how developing good character can impact our daily lives for the better. These conversations shape the hearts and minds of our young people to become, in the most practical sense, the future of our society - those who will lead through example in their homes, schools, communities and hopefully much farther beyond.
Working with the Fair Education Alliance members to reduce education inequality is something we’re committed to and proud to be a part of. Our work in academic mentoring and character development has helped hundreds of disadvantaged young people earn better GCSE grades and stay in employment, education or training. We’re doing everything we can to help our mentees make a better start in life, and we hope that by working with the members of the Fair Education Alliance, we can help make this happen for all disadvantaged young people nationwide.