Impact Goal Three

Ensure young people develop key strengths, including character, emotional wellbeing and mental health, to support high aspirations

The Gap

In the absence of significant measuring tools, we cannot reliably quantify changes over the year in the development of the key strengths (character, emotional wellbeing and mental health) that young people need to succeed in life. Last year, permanent and fixed-period exclusions were identified as quantitative measures to provide the Alliance with some understanding of this area. Across these measures, the gap has increased over the year; children and young people from poor families were more likely than last year to receive a fixed-period exclusion or to be permanently excluded compared to their more affluent peers. However, over the year, our knowledge and understanding of the area has evolved, primarily through developments in policy and research, moving us closer to the development of measuring tools. Furthermore, we have identified the following areas where progress has been made in raising the profile of this Impact Goal:

  • Development of key strengths, including character, emotional wellbeing and mental health, is now a key priority for government.
  • There is a stronger movement towards the development of a common language and definition around this area; prominent concepts now include character, social and emotional skills, mental health and wellbeing.
  • More schools across England are focusing on the development of pupil character, social and emotional skills and mental health and wellbeing; support for schools was affirmed as a Department for Education strategy in the recent White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere.
  • There is increasing acknowledgement that character and social and emotional skills can be taught and that children from poor families stand to benefit most.
  • There is increasing recognition of the importance of parental engagement in children’s learning for their social and emotional development.

The National Picture

2015 has seen a renewed political interest in children and young people’s development of key strengths, including character, emotional wellbeing and mental health. These are often presented under the umbrella term of
‘character’. This interest is mirrored by developments in education and industry. In December 2014, the Secretary of State for Education announced the Character Awards, making £3.5 million grant funding available for schools committed to developing attributes and behaviours in children and young people that underpin and promote their academic and longer term success; collectively, these were referred to as ‘character’. Further funding was also made available for military ethos projects and youth social action
projects. Concurrently, funding to develop the evidence base was granted to the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

By the beginning of 2015, character development had become an educational priority for the Department for Education. In the same year, the Confederation of British Industry and major employers called on schools to address the shortfall in young people’s ‘work skills’. Although the last year has not brought a clearly defined set of ‘key strengths’, the development of which supports high aspirations, it has brought a sharper focus to their place within education and to how they might be defined. Publication of ‘good practice’ examples from award-winning ‘character development’ schools and clubs, evidence-based approaches from the EEF and examples from schools and colleges developing youth social action have clearly illustrated how schools can address children’s character development and wellbeing.

Research and policy documents alike show inconsistencies in terminology and understanding; ‘non-cognitive skills’, ‘soft skills’, ‘social and emotional skills’ and more recently ‘character’ are often used interchangeably to describe the key strengths which underpin educational achievement. There is clearly some consensus on the types of attributes that need to be developed in children and young people, even if the terms vary and definitions are imprecise.

In exploring the extent to which the gaps have changed this year, we have considered the issues addressed in last year’s Report Card and addressed them where data are available; other themes have been identified in the policy and research base in 2015. Some of these themes are considered in this chapter.


Social and emotional skills

Overall findings showed that children from poor families are still more likely to have poorly developed social and emotional skills and are less likely to display the particular positive behavioural skills needed for engagement in learning. Conscientiousness and belief at the age of 10 that one’s actions matter are closely linked to success in accessing top jobs later on in life; for children from nonprofessional families, this can account for 10% of the higher likelihood of achieving a top job. 

The gap for both permanent and fixed-period exclusions widened during the year. Children and young people from poor families are over four times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion than their more advantaged peers and over three times more likely to receive a fixed-period exclusion. Children and young people from poor families are less likely to develop positive behaviours in their home environment and are therefore more likely to benefit from in-school or beyond-school programmes.


Mental Health

Although reporting in the media of mental health issues in children and young people has become more common, the actual evidence for increased anxiety, depression or stress in this age group is inconclusive. This is partly due to the lack of up-to-date published data, an issue which is now being addressed. One report in 2015 indicated that 290,000 children and young people had a diagnosed anxiety disorder, with one in three of these being under 10 years of age. More positively, recent findings from the Behavioural Insights Team found that young people who participate in social action have reduced levels of anxiety. Another positive example is the Family Links’ Nurturing Schools Network which provides a whole-community approach to social and emotional wellbeing, including professional development for teachers, social and emotional learning curriculum resources and a range of parenting and family support programmes.


In-school support

Learning from research published during the year points towards the value of a whole-school approach to the development of social and emotional skills or character. A recent survey suggests that a relatively high proportion of schools already have this in place (involving 54% of secondary school teachers and 80% of primary teachers); other research suggests that provision can be piecemeal both in school and across schools. In schools with a strong emphasis on character development, there is often a key teacher dedicated to the area across the school. In such schools, teachers feel empowered to move away from the standard curriculum, with flexibility to do so, and freely discuss related issues with pupils. Leadership (particularly from the senior leadership team) is an important factor in developing a whole-school approach.


Beyond School

The provision of enrichment activities by third-sector organisations has increased as local authority involvement with schools and other places of education has been reduced. The provision of such activities for young people is more diverse than ever before, with the development of children and young people’s social and emotional skills seen as a central feature of these endeavours. The benefits for young people include working with supportive adults and developing friendships outside of school.

ReachOut, a charity offering one-to-one mentoring to young people from disadvantaged communities in London and Manchester, effectively provides academic support and character education to help young people get a better start in life and go on to achieve their future goals. Additionally, a number of projects in the past year have been successful in inspiring young people to serve their community, the Step Up to Serve’s cross-sector #iwill campaign being a good example of this. For young people, participation in social action is associated with positive levels of wellbeing. However, involvement in social action varies across England; young people from higher income families or those living in less deprived communities are still more likely to participate than their more disadvantaged peers.


Closing the Gap

The national conversation on character has moved nearer to achieving a common language, a working definition and a means of measuring key strengths, including character, wellbeing and mental health. This has been supported in part by the Department for Education’s identification of the key strengths, or ‘traits, attributes and behaviours that underpin success in school and work’, and that contribute to the development of ‘character’. These include: perseverance, resilience and grit; confidence and optimism; motivation, drive and ambition; neighbourliness and community spirit; tolerance and respect; honesty, integrity and dignity and conscientiousness, curiosity and focus. In part, it has been supported by research exploring the origins, meaning and development of ‘character’ in practice and its associated areas. The research is clear: ‘character’ can be taught.

The Alliance has identified areas where more work needs to be done to close the gap during school and beyond. These include developing quality Early Years education and developing parental engagement in children’s learning.