What are schools for? Life-skills, careers, character and love-of-learning

There is no agreed definition for character (e.g. compare Jerome and Kisby 2019 with KristjƔnsson 2015), which is but one reason why numerous character education programmes exist (Arthur, 2003). There is general agreement however, that character refers to the individual dispositions, strengths or traits that we possess, called virtues. Examples of virtues include, amongst others: confidence, curiosity, determination and service. Virtues tend to be grouped in clusters (KristjƔnsson, 2015), and there are several frameworks which attempt to group the virtues (see Lucas, 2019). Love-of-learning, one of 24 character strengths identified by Peterson and Seligman (2004), is incorporated into one of these frameworks; the Values in Action (VIA) Institute on Character Inventory of Strengths (Lucas, 2019).

Character education is not a new idea (Department for Education (DFE) 2019a), but references to character in the recent Ofsted Inspection Handbook highlight that the idea is receiving serious reconsideration (Ofsted, 2019). Presently, Ofsted Inspectors make judgements about the overall effectiveness of schools, and make a series of four key judgments about 1) behaviour and attitudes 2) leadership and management 3) the quality of education and 4) personal development (Ofsted 2019, p. 38). For the personal development of a school to be graded as good, the curriculum and the wider work of the school must support pupils to be confident, independent, resilient and develop strength in character (Ofsted 2019, p. 62). For the personal development of a school to be graded as outstanding, it must meet the criteria for being graded as good ā€“ both consistently and securely ā€“ but go further in being exemplary and worthy of being shared with others (Ofsted 2019, p. 62).

The Ofsted handbook has been critiqued on the basis that it suggests an instrumental view of character, through reference to performative virtues such as confidence and resilience (Metcalfe and Moulin-Stożek,Ā  2020). Character education, however, is a humanising endeavour, with the aim of allowing pupils to reach their full potential and flourish. It should therefore be thought of as whole-school endeavour, which underpins all implicit and explicit educational activities (Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, 2017).

When administered effectively, character education should therefore underpin a school’s careers strategy, and life-skills programmes if offered. To provide some insight into these areas, the purpose of the careers strategy is to make Britain a fairer place, through allowing opportunities for all children and ultimately improving social mobility (DfE, 2017, p. 4). The most recent guidance for careers education states that all schools must have a designated careers leader, and structure their careers programmes around the Gatsby benchmarks (DfE 2017, p. 8). The Essential Life Skills programme (ELS) holds a similar aim to the careers strategy, but focuses on enabling disadvantaged children, living in 12 opportunity areas identified by the DfE, to participate in regular extra-curricular activities and advance their essential life-skills (DfE, 2019b).

Take-away points:

  • Character is the set of personal dispositions, strengths or traits, called virtues, which inform motivation, produce relevant emotions, and guide conduct (Jubilee Centre, 2017).
  • Character education is an umbrella term for all implicit and explicit activities which help young people to develop virtues (Jubilee Centre, 2017).
  • The ELS programme and the careers strategy can contribute to pupilsā€™ character education, but only if school leaders ensure that these are not solely instrumental in scope, and focus to some extent on developing pupilsā€™ virtues and character.

Arthur J (2003) Education with Character: The Moral Economy of Schooling. London: Routledge.

Department for Education (DfE) (2017) Careers Strategy: Making the Most of Everyoneā€™s Skills and Talents. London: DfE.

Department for Education (DfE) (2019a) Character Education: Framework Guidance. London: DfE.

Department for Education (DfE) (2019b) Essential Life Skills Grant: S31 Grant Determination and Letters. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/essential-life-skills-grant-s31-grant-determination-and-letters (accessed 27 June 2020).

Jerome L and Kisby B (2019) The Rise of Character Education in Britain: Heroes, Dragons and the Myths of Character, Palgrave Studies in Young People and Politics. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues (2017) A Framework for Character Education in Schools. Birmingham: Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

KristjƔnsson K (2015) Aristotelian Character Education. London: Routledge.

Lucas B (2019) Character Education in Schools: An Initial Overview of Some Frameworks and Associated Implementation Issues. Eton Journal for Innovation and Research in Education 3: 4ā€“9.

Metcalfe J and Moulin-Stożek D (2020) Religious Education Teachersā€™ Perspectives on Character Education. British Journal of Religious Education. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01416200.2020.1713049?journalCode=cbre20 (accessed 4 May 2021).

Ofsted (2019) School Inspection Handbook: Handbook for Inspecting Schools in England under Section 5 of the Education Act 2005. Manchester: Ofsted.

Peterson C and Seligman M (2004) Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Washington: American Psychological Association.


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