Abingdon School headteacher Michael Windsor asks if schools can build character

THE question as to whether schools can teach character has been around for as long as people have been discussing education.

Indeed, in the 1860s the head of a Scottish school listed his priorities as follows: First - Character. Second - Physique. Third - Intelligence.

More recently, during her comparatively brief spell in the Department for Education, Nicky Morgan prioritised ‘character education’, perhaps as a response to Michael Gove’s sharper focus on qualifications.

When we drill down into what sort of character we might want to develop in our children, the focus tends to be upon ‘grit’; the ability to take on challenges and to bounce back from difficulty. There is a perception that this is a particular priority today as our children require greater resilience in order to cope with the relentless pace and pressures of modern society.

While the responsibility for building resilience should not lie with schools alone, they can play a significant role in providing opportunities that challenge young people and require them to display fortitude and resilience.

The hope has to be of course that they can take what they learn in one particular context and transfer it to other areas of life, which can be difficult to achieve.

To assist with this, schools are equipping pupils with the language and concepts to talk openly about the value and importance of resilience and helping them to transfer attributes to different contexts.

Arguably, the best way to develop resilience in pupils is by presenting them with challenges that will stretch them and will require perseverance and mental strength to overcome.

Different pupils will find challenge in very different activities, be it Outward Bound adventures, public speaking, performing in a concert or simply volunteering an answer in a lesson.

It’s interesting to see how schools are building approaches that will develop resilience into the curriculum and their everyday teaching.

Progress in computer science, for example, depends upon pupils realising that being uncertain and getting things wrong is not only acceptable but actually vital. Computational thinking requires a constant process of debugging, tinkering and persevering until a piece of code does what you want it to do in the most effective possible way.

We know that good quality feedback is highly significant in enabling pupils to make progress. In a French lesson recently, I saw a teacher skilfully turn a pupil’s embarrassment when he made a common grammatical mistake into a really useful opportunity for the whole class to benefit by exploring how to address the original error.

It’s simple, and what good teaching has always been about, but with time this sort of approach can help pupils lose their fear of making mistakes, a fear which really can choke confidence and progress.

We can also build resilience by stretching pupils with tasks that they may struggle even to complete.

The Abingdon Film Unit, which gives students at Abingdon and partner schools the opportunity to make short films under expert guidance, is philosophical when pupils fail to complete projects or decide to change tack completely in the middle of a piece of work.

Jeremy Taylor, Head of the Film Unit, summarised their approach like this:

‘We are the products of the journeys we have undertaken.

Where they lead us is perhaps less relevant than the fact that they have taken us somewhere. And for as long as we are willing to start journeys, and as long as we have the capacity to move on from that "somewhere" in one direction or another, there can be no sense of having failed.’

I’d hope that this sort of approach can inspire our current generation of students to relish any challenge that comes their way and to set themselves up to embrace the opportunities of the future.