A test of character – Our SEMH response to the new DfE Character Education Guidance

For an SEMH provision such as The Forwards Centre, the Nov 2019 DfE guidance on Character Education makes interesting reading.  The guidance was formed by a working party in Spring 2019 and fleshes out the Personal Development section of the new Ofsted framework.

Auditing the way we work  against the ‘6 Character Benchmarks’ within the guidance felt like a validation of our practice as well as giving us some practical ideas for improvement.

The Ofsted handbook (Nov 2019:62) now makes explicit reference to character education with the outstanding grade descriptor for Personal Development stating that: ‘The way the school goes about developing pupils’ character is exemplary and is worthy of being shared with others.’

Using the ‘6 Character Benchmarks’ as an audit tool (provided within the guidance and shown below) has helped us clarify the way we go about it.

The tool considers 6 questions:

A – What kind of schools are we?

Here schools are judging how well they articulate the kind of education they aspire to provide and how they ensure that all the members of the school community understand those aims and feel a sense of pride and belonging.

B – What are our expectations of behaviour towards each other?

Here schools are asked to judge their clarity in promoting the importance of discipline (for us this means the willingness to do something we don’t want to do because we know it will do us some good in the long-term), good behaviour, respect and good manners.

This is also where promoting positive character traits are mentioned. Later in the document (pg. 7) these traits are described as:

  • the ability to remain motivated by long-term goals, to see a link between effort in the present and pay-off in the longer-term, overcoming and persevering through, and learning from, setbacks when encountered;
  • the learning and habituation of positive moral attributes, sometimes known as ‘virtues’, and including, for example, courage, honesty, generosity, integrity, humility and a sense of justice, alongside others;
  • the acquisition of social confidence and the ability to make points or arguments clearly and constructively, listen attentively to the views of others, behave with courtesy and good manners and speak persuasively to an audience; and
  • an appreciation of the importance of long-term commitments which frame the successful and fulfilled life, for example to spouse, partner, role or vocation, the local community, to faith or world view. This helps individuals to put down deep roots and gives stability and longevity to lifetime endeavours.

C – How well does our curriculum and teaching develop resilience and confidence?

This is where school evaluate how well the curriculum is sequenced so that children can feel a strong sense of progress and whether pupils gain the knowledge and cultural capital that they need to succeed in wider society.

D – How good is our co-curriculum?

In addition to access to programmes such as Duke of Edinburgh, there is a focus here on the opportunities that pupils have to experience a wide range of activities and then take an area of interest and develop expertise over a sustained period of time.

E – How well do we promote the value of volunteering and service to others?

Schools are ask to evaluate whether they provide opportunities for pupils to volunteer in ways that are meaningful, age-appropriate and sustained with the aim of developing civic-minded tendencies.

F – How do we ensure that all our pupils benefit equally from what we offer?

Finally, in addition to making sure that all pupils are served by the range of co-curricular activities on offer, schools are asked to judge whether they are doing everything they can to remove barriers to participation.

In addition to the ‘6 Character Traits’ a cited literature review for the Education Endowment Fund and the Cabinet Office (pg.7) states that there are enabling character traits which improve both educational engagement and attainment. These include resilience, self-regulation and the development of positive social behaviours. When considered against our key SEMH principles of understand emotions; understand that learning new things means trying hard and making lots of mistakes; and creating time in the day for the building of good quality relationships, we feel that we are on the right track.

Working with the guidance has also given us food for thought. We try and build in opportunities for pupils to do kind things for each and we might be able to develop this and provide more age-appropriate opportunities for volunteering. We have a cultural offer which gives children a wide range of opportunities to find their thing and improve their skills.  We might be able to give those ready for it more opportunity to showcase their developing expertise through competition or performance.

It feels exciting and what education should be about. We are looking forward to it.

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