Building Character: Being More Marcus

I like Marcus Rashford. I like the fact that he’s from Wythenshawe and not part of the establishment. I like that, although he’s a football star, he describes himself as pretty ordinary. And I like that last week with quiet dignity, he reminded those in power of their responsibilities for our poorest children. 

We see a person’s real character in moments of high emotion. When Rashford scores he doesn’t point to himself, the celebration seems to be about the team, not him. And when the news came in last week, when parents of the poorest children discovered that there will be an extension of the voucher scheme over what will be a challenging summer, when the MR v HMG match was won, his response was matter of fact: what next?

I’ve written here that the heroes we choose tend to be a reflection of our childhood, our outlook on life and the kind of person we aspire to be. But we know that dubious war heroes and shady millionaires have ended up on plinths. And we watch our students grow up in a politically moral vacuum where we know the price of Rashford the player, but not the value of Rashford the man.

So what qualities of character might make our statues of the future?

In society and in our schools we don’t have a coherent strategy to build character. Without it, crises can cause our internal lives to crumble, and many of us have fallen to pieces a bit recently. Of course we want ourselves and our families to flourish. Flourishing is more than being happy, it means fulfilling our potential. This is what is behind character education, and involves developing the virtues or traits which encourage a ‘good life’ and a blossoming society.  

So what should children be focusing on as they aspire to a ‘good life’? 

In Ancient Greece a group of philosophers called hedonists thought the ‘good life’ meant experiencing maximum pleasure and enjoyment. Why shop for someone who’s shielding when you could watch Rashford on Sky? Others saw instant gratification as primitive and decadent and believed the ‘good life’ meant seeking higher pleasures or ‘eudaimonia’. Aristotle described eudemonia through the habits of temperance, courage, justice and prudence. 

Most character-building has targeted the latter. If we want children to pursue purpose, then we need to reward them when they practise habits which don’t come naturally. So in schools we have badges, awards and house systems so children will embrace values and cultivate hard-to-reach habits. The link between character (aretē) and happiness (eudaimonia) is one of the fundamentals of ancient ethics. 

It’s been true throughout history that when we cultivate character, we head towards happiness. 

For most of history, education was not about passing exams, but building virtue. The work of a teacher was chiselling character, not hitting a grade, at least until the second half of the twentieth century. In Judaism, before Christ, “teacher” meant rabbi. Students sat at his feet hoping for truths to drop in their direction. They got progressively sandier as the hot day wore on, and the degree of their sandiness became a measure of commitment. It was long-term and involved sweat. It worked for some students, but others found the level of personal challenge perilously high, the assault on integrity too great.

In the west, being a teacher meant being a certain kind of person: a man or woman of good character, a figure in the community. On a sliding scale of requirements for the job, character then qualification then instructional skill was the order in which teachers were judged. That’s now reversed.

The 1920’s Scottish headmaster J.F. Roxburgh’s goal was to develop students with good character and moral courage, young men that would be “acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck.”

More recently, schools involving themselves in personal integrity was controversial. The concept of ‘character’ was perceived as a patriarchal, private school construct (revolving, if you like, around statues now falling). The Report of the Riots Communities and Victims’ Panel, in the wake of the August 2011 riots, blew that out of the water. It recommended that schools share the societal job of helping children to forge virtue, although even this was criticised as a ‘conservative’ agenda using character education and citizenship to ‘fix the kids,’ something society had failed to do.

We are in a similar moment now: not feral behaviour, but a societal pause pointing to a hole in the school curriculum.

What is ‘character education’ anyway? I can audit a PSHE scheme, I think I know my British values and my student leaders can run a council, but do I really know how to build character?  One thing is for sure: it takes time. Much of school is short term: we teach and we test. Input equals outputs. Our educational eye is drawn to quick wins, but children require nurturing and pruning, not hot-housing.

Lots of school is about external success, not internal wholeness. 

We don’t yet have a curriculum for character – there are elements in the Ofsted framework, but not a lot. In 2017 the DFE wrote ‘Developing Character Skills in Schools’ here and then in 2019 drew up Framework Guidance here. Its six character benchmarks are a helpful place to start. Two better starting points are Birmingham University’s Jubilee Centre for Character Education, an excellent organisation creating quality thinking and resources, and the Association for Character who run a rigorous Character Kitemark scheme. Jubilee Centre define character education as:

“a set of personal traits that produce moral emotions, inform motivation and guide conduct. It includes explicit and implicit educational activities that help young people develop positive personal strengths or virtues. It helps students grasp what is ethically important in situations and how to act for the right reasons.”

Let’s see what this might look like in 4 different schools:

School A has much which works well, and the school ticks along:
The pastoral cogs (tutor time, assemblies and a decent rewards system) oil the whole learning machine, build discipline, reward effort and bring care. There’s the basic mechanics of morning routines: regular attendance and good behaviour – the significant ways that pupils demonstrate reliability, consistency, integrity and truthfulness. In addition the school surrounds children with staff who work hard, are honest and exacting. They use a PSHE curriculum which educates about the dangers out there, and they audit and tick off the British Values. Extra-curricular activities include sports, performance arts, outdoor activities, subject specific clubs. And of course the whole subject curriculum.

School B thinks carefully about how virtues shape character:
Moral’ virtues are explored through taking turns and sharing; persistence in the face of difficulty; being truthful when it hurts and learning the ingredients of real friendship (instead of an impressive social media profile). Experienced, reflective leaders encourage ‘intellectual’ virtues like curiosity, and critical, rigorous thinking. Students are encouraged to debate ‘the way things are done here’. They might evaluate what is worthy of respect rather than merely being passively respectful, or asking how to apply school values to real issues they have in school. Young people respect and admire a culture where they can embrace their ‘civic’ virtues of service and citizenship. The school is well aware of the personal traits or ‘performance’ virtues which young people have demonstrated in managing their lives over the last three months: resilience, determination, confidence. 

School C works hard to instil a pride in rewards and a consensus in the thinking behind them:
Leaders think carefully about which character traits children strive for and how badges or rewards reflect the ‘virtue’ or the ‘school values’. There is a synchronicity in the way that ambition, reward and achievement merge, and the way this is played out with parents closely fits school values. 

Some virtues are taught through specific subjects, and students are equipped with precise vocabulary about character or virtue. The school recognises that the language is important. Some virtues are caught because the school is developing role models to inspire and creating a positive ethos that motivates. Some virtues are sought: as children seek to take part in the many after school opportunities available.

So even as the school’s strategy around character is intentional and organised (rather than assumed or random) it also recognises that not all character is ‘taught’ from the front.

School D have put character education at the heart of the improvement plan:
They are now looking to find the best extra-curricular offer across state, grammar and private schools, and then going further by setting ambitious targets for how disadvantaged pupils will benefit. They are acutely aware that household income is the most important factor driving gaps in participation, so they are using pupil premium money to invest in targeted choirs, music classes and sports coaching, and then tracking how their disadvantaged cohort for each year group access these, to ensure that the most vulnerable children are getting a fair deal.

The Dutch painting of warships in a heavy storm, by Bakhuysen, 1695, is a powerful image of the churning ocean. However, to withstand the dangerous seas, the wooden hull was minutely constructed, and crews practised manouevres again and again to ensure they kept their vessels safe. Children will face life’s storms, and so we think deeply and plan how we want them to sail through. Encouragingly, suggests philosopher Alain de Botton, the painting shows us that what at first seems immensely threatening may be perfectly survivable.

Our role as parents is not to eliminate every difficulty. I want my children to be happy but I also want them to experience real tests of character. Children will cope with crises. What is more dangerous for children is where they watch adults fail to confront injustice or incompetence. Then we have to ask what are kids modelling themselves on? 

Teaching Hamlet or Othello helps us reflect on our own flaws, not to limit us, to pretend they are ‘fatal’, but to show us a way out of our own problems. The national conversation around character is a desperate one, where we fly from adulation one minute to judgement the next. No sooner do we put our role models on pedestals than we dash them down again. The longevity of love is heartbreakingly brief. Only when children learn from adults that they will be able to survive a mistake or a challenge will they take more risks.

For those of us who’ve had the honour and sadness of delivering a eulogy, we’d probably acknowledge that the eulogy virtues are ultimately more important than our resume virtues (the ones you list on your CV). The speaker doesn’t talk about what ‘A’ levels you achieved but the difference you made to other people. Of course the investment of school time between these two virtues will always be imbalanced, but it’s worth remembering that we have better knowledge of how to make ourselves more marketable than making ourselves better people. 

From time to time we come across people with real inner strength. They’re not blown off course by crises. They stand strong on points of principle. They remain dignified when others demean. They don’t keep reminding you how many followers they have. They make you feel good just spending time with them.

These are people of ordinary joy, where the character of their lives makes the difference. 

Marcus Rashford worked hard to emerge from a difficult background, when the odds were against him succeeding. He’ll have had mentors who’ve challenged and supported him because like all of us he hasn’t formed himself in isolation. And so, after years of discipline and of carving his own character, he’s earned the right to challenge the integrity of our political leaders.

I want our children to be more like this.

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