Measuring our success in developing character

One of the two purposes of all schools is to develop the character of its pupils (I’ll leave you to guess what the other one is). Character has a bit of an old fashioned ring about it bringing to mind cold showers and long cross-country runs in schools of the 1960s and earlier. Fortunately, such stereotypes are long since out of date if ever they were accurate: certainly, long distance running has reinvented itself as the sport of the ultra-fit.

Building character remains a core purpose of outstanding HMC schools because, as Heads, we know that it is essential to allowing our pupils to live fulfilled lives, ideally, in the service of others. So what do we mean by character? Well, think of all the personal attributes you might like your child to have or that you display (or wish you displayed) yourself; empathy, integrity, independence, honesty, compassion, curiosity, creativity, tolerance, resilience, determination,  endurance, confidence, humility, determination etc. You get the picture. The role of schools is to work alongside parents to instil these characteristics. Without them, all the academic achievements in the world count for nothing.

We could argue over which characteristic was the most important. I’d make a case for humility but that would reflect my Benedictine upbringing which just goes to illustrate how long-lasting and innate such characteristics become.

I’d like to talk about tolerance. How do schools develop tolerance in children? How do we measure our success in developing tolerance? I think it’s really quite simple (like most good ideas). First, be clear in our own minds about what we mean; second, communicate that in an appropriate way; third, model what it is we are expecting from children and, fourth, monitor and adjust their behaviour at every opportunity.

How do we model tolerance? Ironically, quite often by being intolerant! Intolerant of language or behaviour which seeks to control, hurt, undermine or divide such as racist, sexist or homophobic quips; intolerant of adults (parents and staff) who seek to dominate their children through oppression (often conveniently described as “strength of character”); intolerant of external influences such as media images or advertising which seek to manipulate. Of greater influence, we model tolerance in schools by ensuring our children mix with others of different background be that social, cultural or religious and making sure they have the opportunity to learn from others. Yes, this happens in structured conversations in lessons such as Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) but, more importantly, it happens through social interaction; conversations over lunch, in the library or the playground; in group events such as drama and music productions, sports tournaments, debates, trips and expeditions and in myriad informal conversations with adults in boarding houses or over a cup of tea in the schools café.

How do we measure our success? Also simple. Look at how the children behave towards each other and those they encounter. Do they listen and consider others rather than rush to judgement? Are they comfortable in the presence of those unfamiliar to them? Do they give considered views? Do they stand up to racist or other derogatory views and behaviour? Are they prepared to be intolerant in defence of tolerance?

All of this was brought home to me just yesterday when I took a guest to have lunch in our refectory and randomly sat down next to some Year 9 boys (stereotypically not known for tolerance). The boys were from Kent and the rest of the world! As I left the table to get some water for my guest they introduced themselves and started talking, without prompt, about their backgrounds and their experiences. It was clear to both me and my guest just how at ease they were with each other. Not only were they highly tolerant, they had made the leap of understanding that with tolerance comes a richness of life than is otherwise closed.

By Mike Buchanan, Headmaster of Ashford School