Character education: Raising aspirations

Written by: Matt Bawden | Published:
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We cannot force aspiration onto students. This year in SecEd, Matt Bawden will be looking at how we can encourage aspiration naturally, and the role that character education can play

Aspiration needs to come from within. This means it needs to be real and authentic.

We, as teachers, can help children to discover aspiration. We can even nudge them in a particular direction. What we cannot do, or it will be an endless struggle if we try, is to force aspiration on someone.

Creating a sense of value, in all stakeholders, enables an atmosphere of drive and purpose – and this can be the underpinning of aspiration for those in danger of requiring early intervention.

Yet, too often we miss the opportunity, or it is grasped by those children more ready for it and the others (usually the more vulnerable) are left behind.

Building in a range of opportunities to taste aspiration can help children, staff and the community to develop an understanding of who they are, who they might be, and exactly what they are capable of.

These opportunities can also spur on our students and encourage them to buy-in to aspirations, moulding them to suit their own lives. For this reason the opportunities need to be suitable for all children, particularly those on the edges or at risk of dropping out.

In my articles for SecEd during the coming months I want to look at how a focus on character qualities and virtues can bring about a lasting impact on a child’s life and can raise their aspirations. I want to discuss everything from small ideas in the classroom, to whole-school approaches.

First, a caveat

There are many ways to go about this kind of work and checking that what we do is effective ensures that we don’t become complacent and means we can make the most of the voices that our children, staff and community possess. Listening takes practice – and time – but can save effort in the long run.

Quality assurance matters because it helps everyone to see that there is purpose behind their activities and that the work is making a difference.

Keeping the voice of the vulnerable child in mind can add much to this process – if it works for the child on the edge it will work for those in the mainstream. Being systematic in your evaluation helps to keep things clear, simple and purposeful.

The role of character

Character education shows us that what matters more than anything in raising aspiration is an understanding of what needs raising and what stands in the way.

The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues published an evidence-informed policy brief in October 2016 entitled Character and Social Mobility.
In this brief, it is explained how a focus on performance virtues (qualities of mind and spirit for want of another definition), such a resilience and grit, can actually be quite damaging without their being accompanied by guidance from a moral dimension.

Perhaps too often we set out to create “resilience” in a child who finds attending school difficult or who wishes to give up in mathematics. Sometimes we succeed, but for others we fail.

So in this series of articles I want to look at how a focus on other qualities or virtues, alongside those of performance, can bring about a lasting impact and can raise aspirations in a more permanent fashion.

Aspirations must include a moral dimension as well as a concern for others and a civic or social responsibility. By describing the sorts of people we wish to develop we become aware, as educators, of the underlying philosophy for aspiration. We can therefore develop the right building blocks and model the best expectations for pupils.

As the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues states in its recently updated document A Framework for Character Education in Schools, “we should help prepare students for the tests of life, rather than simply a life of tests”.

I would be very interested in your input as we go through this year and welcome your suggestions. The next article will focus on how important understanding a school’s ethos can be for raising aspirations, particularly among the vulnerable.

As a test or homework between now and then, try writing down the vision and values of your school. Then look them up on the school website.

Finally ask your children to list them. Do the three match up? And what might this say about raising aspirations in your setting?

In the meantime, let me leave you with some initial thoughts on how we might foster aspirational attitudes.

Celebrating success

Celebrating success breeds more success. Little wins soon build into big victories. There are so many opportunities for this throughout the year.

They come in the summer with GCSE results for students who have exceeded their projections, they come when a difficult student gains a positive comment from a teacher, and they come in the clubs and activities they attend.

We then need to make the most of them. Raising aspirations can happen at any time, but not simply from the event, it is what we do afterwards that drives the change.

The family of the difficult child needs just a simple phone call from the teacher to make their day. The team who manages their first win needs to be told how appreciated they are, not just as individuals but as representatives of their school and community.

Seating plans

Simple things like contextual seating plans make a big difference with the raising of aspiration. Students sit where they will learn, and not just where they chose or through a random allocation of our choosing. We need to have thought through why a child sits where she does and how being in this seat will affect her learning.

Professional experience

There is no substitute for experience. Drawing experience out of colleagues takes skill. It is about helping them to see how they can contribute and to value themselves and their work. As teachers we build our experience by doing, and to that end we will make mistakes. This requires an underlying principle of supportive environments and the freedom to take risks and make mistakes. The same goes for the students – and this is where character education comes to the fore.

Marking & feedback

What role can marking play? It is about checking learning, assessing progress, and making sure everyone knows where they stand. Then, and only then, can children make the progress their aspiration deserves, and set the aspirations they will be proud of. The child who gains the grades can then come back and work with those who are struggling in year 10 or 11 – after all they know what it was like.

It’s not just the academic

Aspiration for grades is just one aspect out of many in the life of a vibrant school. Investment in the co-curricular helps the children flourish. When they are happy in their unstructured time they are more likely to be happy in lessons.

It is difficult these days for staff to find the time, or the energy, to invest in things beyond their classroom, and yet it pays dividends in so many ways. When children feel valued by the school their behaviour improves, and their attitude to learning follows. Involvement in the co-curricular also opens up opportunities to build relationships with the children and to raise aspirations.

For children to aspire they need to have role-models, and role-models who are involved in their lives. The more aspects of their lives in which they have role-models, the more likely they are to draw from them. Once again there is a role for character education.

  • Matt Bawden is an assistant headteacher at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne and editor of the Association for Character Education eJournal Character Matters. Follow @ourschoolday. To read his previous articles and SecEd’s other best practice relating to character education, visit http://bit.ly/1OvQtqv. His next article is due to publish on November 22.

Further information

  • Policy Brief: Character and Social Mobility, Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues, October 2016: http://bit.ly/2xTRzx6
  • A Framework for Character Education in Schools, Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues, revised version published June 2017: http://bit.ly/2QbfMH0


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