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Developing good character matters more than passing exams

04 Feb 2013 | Anthony Seldon

Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College and co-founder of Action for Happiness, believes schools should prioritise character above exam results

School classroom

The current focus in our school system is a single-minded drive to improve educational attainment. Yet education is much more than a mechanistic process which achieves its highest state with the maximisation of academic performance. Exam success is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for being an educated human being. As human beings, we are not machines but flesh and blood, with capacious minds, with bodies, with emotions, and with a soul. We are organisms and our current mechanistic model of the purpose of education fails to rise to the heights and wonders of the organic model that young people across the land cry out for, as do their parents.

It is not enough for young people to emerge from school with a string of exam passes and for schools to pat themselves on the back, thinking that the box has been ticked and the 'job done'. This is only a part of the whole education journey. Families have a key role in the development of the finished product. So too do schools. Academic attainment and exam success can never be more than part of the story of the profound moral responsibility of schools to children, parents, society and the nation.

I would argue that schools that make children and their parents believe that exams are all-important are cynical and negligent. Worse, they are ignorant. Because school provides a once in a lifetime opportunity. That opportunity is all the more precious when young people come from disadvantaged home backgrounds, which do not provide the same chances for enrichment as those from more affluent backgrounds.

The work of education, as the linguistic root suggests, is to 'lead out'. Schools need to lead or draw out of young people all their talents and aptitudes. We cannot and must not define this task purely in terms of academic success. Not the least because a focus on mere academic success often drains the lifeblood out of academic subjects, creating heavy and dull minds. As a headmaster, I know that what is not 'led out' of young people, what is not nurtured, by the age of 16 or 18 may remain dormant in that person for the rest of their lives.

At Wellington College, the fee paying school in Berkshire which I head, and at Wellington Academy in Wiltshire, the state school we run in a relatively deprived rural area, we aim to 'draw out' a wealth of different qualities or intelligences from our young people. The development of good character lies at the heart of all that we do. We are not just trying to maximise the exam performance of our students, good though we are at that: we are seeking to maximise the chances of our young leading happy, successful and healthy lives. We are preparing them for university, with curious, disciplined and appreciative minds. We are preparing them for work, for family life and for society.

A focus merely on exams can all too easily lead to closed minds and leave the heart cold. A focus on character seeks to open their hearts and open their minds. The development of good character is more important than exam success because good character strengths are a greater predictor of success in university and in life than mere exam passes. But it is not at the expense of academic work. An emphasis on character will make academic learning more profound and also boost exam success.

At Wellington, our new character approach has five strands. In 2006, we began to teach wellbeing (popularly called "happiness"), based on the University of Pennsylvania's resilience programme, founded by the 'father' of positive psychology, Professor Martin Seligman. The programme consists of five one hour tutorial classes taken in years 10 and 11 which deploy typical dilemmas to develop character strength. Students explore what strengths they can draw on when making difficult but prudent decisions, for example on being offered drugs. The process can be said to be Aristotelian in that it sees character and virtue as ends to be learned, developed and practised with mistakes not being deemed catastrophes, but rather being seen as positive options of learning.

Teaching of resilience is based on the stoic idea that 'man is troubled not by things, but by his opinion of them' (following Epictetus). Students begin to understand that their thinking patterns have a profound (though not total) impact upon their feelings and their behaviour. Resilience training helps people to tune in to their perception of situations and to learn to distinguish perception from fact. Over time, students become more aware of thinking patterns that are not helpful, which causes them excessive anxiety and procrastination, or animosity with others, and they learn to challenge those patterns of thought with evidence so that they can gain a more accurate and flexible perspective. In short, resilience training is about developing habits of mind that can help to avoid an unnecessary or unpleasant burden from emotion, and can help avoid thoughts and actions that, upon reflection, we might regret.

The school is grounded on five core values, selected by the students and the whole community: courage, integrity, kindness, respect and responsibility. The five values are regularly aired with students and adults to ensure that they become living signposts. We take role modelling immensely seriously. Teachers must not shout, must display real integrity, and show genuine respect for students, as must the students themselves for others across the community. All students learn how to be leaders, beginning with learning how to lead themselves, acquiring skills of organisation, self control and communication. Older pupils are given considerable responsibility for younger, but they must exercise their power with kindness, not force. 'Kindness' awards for service to others, are regularly made, nominated by the community. We also have an extensive volunteering programme. Service, we remind ourselves, is not a week's trip abroad to help in a village school, but is a constant attitude of mind.

We try to follow the model of 'undefended leadership', as advocated by Simon P Walker, where we all open ourselves to constructive criticism, embrace it, and try to learn from it. Staff and students are taught coaching skills. Quiet listening is fundamental and periods of 'stillness' increasingly punctuate the school day. I regularly ask all 1200 in school assembly to close their eyes and be totally still. I begin each weekly staff meeting on Monday break with a period of silence which allows everyone to collect themselves and let go of the baggage. Mindfulness is key to all we do.

How effective is all this character work? Wellington has seen its academic results soar in the five years after 2006, from 65% achieving As and Bs at A-level to 93%, with students of the same academic quality. Even if the emphasis on character resulted in only some of the improvement in results, one can certainly say that adopting a character and wellbeing focus has not been at the expense of academic results. The school has also become much calmer, kinder and more purposeful since this new approach has been adopted.

Why then do I say that schools should prioritise character-building above exams? Because when we prioritise exams in the way that we have been doing, little or nothing will happen with character. But if we prioritise character, exam success will follow, and for the right reasons. The students will behave well in class. They will respect their teacher and each other. They will want to learn, rather than being made to learn. They will want to behave rather than being made to behave. They will probe beneath surface learning to the depths of subjects because they will be more reflective people.

Anthony Seldon

Dr Anthony Seldon is Master of Wellington College and co-founder of Action for Happiness. This article is adapted from the Priestly Lecture, given at the University of Birmingham in January 2013.

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