Demystifying Character

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.

Ali Aden delivering his speech at the Character Symposium.

Ali Aden delivering his speech at the Character Symposium.

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.

Ali Aden on the panel with Nicky Morgan.

Ali Aden on the panel with Nicky Morgan.

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.

Young people from ReachOut taking part in social action, selling cakes for charity.

Young people from ReachOut taking part in social action, selling cakes for charity.

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. 

Edward Timpson talking to Sam Johnson, mentee turned mentor.

Edward Timpson talking to Sam Johnson, mentee turned mentor.

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  @ReachOutUK



School-Home Support: Supporting the families turning their backs on gangs

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, recently announced a new scheme to support young people from across the capital to turn their back on gangs. The scheme looks to support young people with underlying issues such as mental health, substance misuse and housing. This is a welcome step in helping children and young people tackle the barriers that prevent them from engaging in education.

School-Home Support (SHS) practitioners often work with pupils who are either involved in gangs themselves, or are affected by their siblings or parents involvement, often resulting in reduced attendance or behavioural issues in school.

In order to help children and young people turn their back on gangs, we need to first understand what attracts them to get involved in the first place.

Children often get involved in gangs because they don’t feel part of their own family, they may not spend much time with their parents or have challenging relationships at home; or they might be looking for a father figure when their dad has left.

Initially they see the gang as cool and look up to the older members, seeing other gang members as their family. However this relationship quickly deteriorates and people are intimidated into staying by others.

In order to help children, young people and their families overcome this, we support them to change the dynamics at home. This might involve encouraging parents to attend parenting courses, or our practitioners supporting the family to make changes at home. This can involve spending time with the child in school to find out what the pull of the gang is for them, how they feel at home and what their interests are. If they like sports or music we look to arrange to take them and their parent/s to a club to take part in a session.

We then work with the parents, encouraging and empowering them to do this independently, to help build a stronger relationship with their children. Our practitioners also work closely with other services in the community so that children and parents get any other specialist support they need.

This is one of the ways we work with schools to support the wellbeing of pupils - one of five impact goals developed by the Fair Education Alliance.

There are many children who may not be involved in gangs but still face similar barriers to engaging effectively with their education. Parental mental health, substance misuse, domestic violence, homelessness and poverty are some of the common issues we come across in our work. To improve engagement at school families need support to overcome these barriers, supporting the wellbeing of pupils in school and at home.

As the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s state of the nation report highlighted, the majority of pupil’s development takes place at home. And as social care thresholds increase, more responsibility in being placed on schools to provide this type of support to their pupils.

A whole school approach to wellbeing is really important to ensure that there is a joined-up approach across the school. But we need to recognise that it takes specialist skills to be able to carry out these types of interventions effectively. Whilst policy discussions often focus on the role of teachers, the important role of pastoral, special education and other support staff can be lost. Teachers obviously have an important part to play in supporting the wellbeing of their pupils, and need the skills to do so, but it is unrealistic to expect teachers to take on extra responsibilities at a time when they are already facing severe workload pressures.

As we called for in our manifesto last year, schools need well trained and properly supported staff with the specific skills to engage pupils and families facing barriers to education. To address the entrenched gap in attainment, we need school to combine high quality teaching with a high quality approach to wellbeing.  


Rania Marandos, Deputy CEO of Step up to Serve: How the #iwill campaign can help to close the socio-economic gap

Last week to mark the 2nd anniversary of the #iwill campaign, leaders from across sectors celebrated the contributions young people are making through their social action and pledged to help unlock the potential of future generations in creating positive change. Education Minister Edward Timpson MP spoke about the value of social action for character development, reaffirming DfE’s pledge to the campaign. Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, re-pledged Ofsted’s support, alongside fellow Chief Inspectors at Education Scotland and Estyn in Wales. Businesses reiterated the value of the skills social action develops, as highlighted in a blog by Paul Drechsler CBE, President of the CBI.

Beyond recognising the value of social action, businesses, schools, colleges and charities have been taking tangible action to inspire and enable more youth social action. Together we want to empower an additional 1.5 million young people by 2020 to help others or the environment, for example through mentoring fellow students, campaigning to create positive change, or fundraising to support a cause they care passionately about.

But the #iwill campaign is aiming to do more than simply make social action part of young people's journey to adulthood by 2020. With the leadership of partners across sectors, including members of the Fair Education Alliance, #iwill is also striving to close a socio-economic gap in access to youth social action. Latest data from the 2015 national youth social action survey, carried out by Ipsos MORI, demonstrates that participation is not evenly spread: 49% of young people from the most affluent communities take part, while just 38% of young people from low income communities are involved.

The same survey also demonstrates a significant link between taking part and increased levels of wellbeing. Coupled with compelling evidence that social action helps develop key strengths linked to employability (such as cooperation, empathy, resilience, and a sense of community), there is a moral imperative to ensure the opportunities to take part are available to all young people.

The most common route to participation is through school or college. Schools and colleges across the UK, in partnership with the wider community, have the potential to empower many more young people to realise the difference they can make. A group of 50 Headteachers and College Principals from across the country talk about how they already integrate social action into the educational experience of their students in the newly launched “Transforming Young People and Communities”. We hope that their ideas and practices will help inspire many more schools and colleges to make social action a key part of their vision for education. 

I believe growing youth social action will also play an important role in achieving the vision set out by the Fair Education Alliance. On the one hand, by helping young people develop key strengths and networks that will enable them to reach their high aspirations and access further education, training and employment opportunities. And on the other hand, by inspiring and empowering young people – the leaders of tomorrow - to play their part in addressing educational inequality. A case in point is Terri Smith, 20, an #iwill ambassador who first got involved in social action when she was 12 and is still a keen campaigner for the UK’s most vulnerable and disenfranchised young people:  “I didn’t have an easy start in life. I grew up in poverty and at school I was bullied, and sometimes I couldn’t ever imagine things getting better. But social action truly did help me get my life back on track.”  

Join a movement of over 500 organisations across sectors and make your own pledge to bring the benefits of youth social action to more young people and communities across the UK. For more information visit:


@rania_iwill and @iwill_campaign