Character Awards: Education Should Be More Than Just Academic Attainment

Character and Life Skills

Earlier this year, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan highlighted how “just having academic strengths isn’t enough to succeed in the modern world”. Speaking at the Character Awards ceremony, Ms Morgan (Department of Education, 2015a) suggested that building skills such as grit and resilience are an important part of a well-rounded education and can lead to higher attainment and increased attendance in students, as well as success in the workplace. It can therefore be argued that lessons in ‘character and life skills’ should be made an essential part of every young person’s schooling, rather than the current narrow focus on passing exams. This follows on from warnings by business leaders that too many school leavers are entering the workforce without necessary ‘soft skills’.

While character can be a difficult attribute to measure, Ms Morgan has suggested that individual schools could be allowed to define what character means and develop a programme of study around this in order to better prepare their pupils for adult life. With this in mind, in January the Department of Education (2015b) launched the Character Awards, which offers £15,000 to schools that provide excellent education in the development of traits such as perseverance, optimism, ambition, tolerance, and community spirit. The top prize for 2015 went to King’s Leadership Academy, a secondary free school in Warrington, Cheshire, which was praised by Ofsted for its outstanding behaviour resulting from measures such as weekly public speaking, philosophy and ethics classes, empowering students to take on school leadership roles, and ensuring that all pupils participate in the school’s brass orchestra.

Learning How To Fail In Order To Succeed

Research tends to agree with the idea that traits such as perseverance and grit correspond with higher levels of success. A study by Martin (2002) investigated the relationship between resilience and continued academic gains, and concluded that although general motivation is critical to educational success, academic gains that students make can be lost if they are not resilient to setbacks, study pressure and stress within the school setting. Further to this, Kandemir (2014) noted the role that personal attributes such as self-efficacy and optimism play in determining how individuals approach or avoid goals. He concluded that a good sense of personal responsibility and self-respect could positively and significantly affect the learning and performance of students. People with a higher responsibility trait tend to be planned and determined, while others who do not exhibit this trait are more careless and easily distracted (Arthur and Graziano, 1996). In this scope, pupils who show a higher level of personal responsibility are able to link their control and discipline with motivation and are therefore more likely to reach their academic goals, even in the face adversity. Research by Feldman and Kubota (2015) reached the same conclusion, finding that students that felt hopeful towards the future tended to achieve better grades. The study noted that ‘hope’ concerns the cognitive process of pursuing a goal through planning and motivation-related thoughts, and school related tasks such as writing essays, taking notes, and scheduling time require putting these plans in motion. Domain-specific hope therefore leads to higher attainment.

The link between student-community engagement and future is also underscored by recent studies showing a positive correlation between activities such as student work experience, volunteering, and involvement in local community projects and the individual’s employability after graduation. Bourner and Millican (2011) suggest several likely reasons for this relationship, such as the ability to grow a larger social network at an earlier stage. Contacts made during education could lead to employment opportunities in the future, either through the offer of a job by the organisation providing the engagement project, or perhaps a contact is made that is able to highlight a job opening later on. Student-community engagement also allows the individual to discover and develop talents that may not be so easily recognised within the academic environment, such as leadership skills, or project planning. Most importantly, it offers students the chance to provide evidence of these talents, which make for a stronger CV.

With evidence that character does indeed have an impact on a student’s academic and employment success, offering more guidance to pupils in building these qualities should be considered just as important as building academic strengths. As the recent economic recession has shown, grit and resilience are especially valuable attributes for any young person entering the employment market.


Photo: Phil Roeder

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