Providing for the Development of Good Character in Young People

Posted on: 23 Jan 2015

Well-rounded, confident young people who are truly happy to be themselves are what make a school successful, as Laura Hyde, Director of Education at St James Schools UK, explains…

Whether we find ourselves in the independent or state sector, as fellow teachers and school leaders, we are united in a single purpose: that the young people in our care should thrive and prosper.

Our schools are judged primarily by the educational outcomes they produce. This is entirely understandable: ultimately children need the best preparation possible to access further opportunities in higher education or in the world of work. However, ‘outcomes’ are only half the story and, as we have seen in the media over the last few months, there has been a call to remember that education must also embrace the development of ‘character’. This has arisen for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the growing concern for the mental and emotional welfare of young people whose level of anxiety has risen considerably over recent years.

So, what is ‘good character’? We would probably agree that it could be described as all that is best in human nature: generosity, honesty, self-sacrifice, compassion, commitment, endeavour, creativity, intelligence, courage, harmlessness, humility, self-discipline, integrity and wisdom. All successful organisations are looking for people who work hard and contribute generously when working with others. They want employees who demonstrate integrity, honesty, self-discipline and consideration. People of good character act like leaven in society: they make an uplifting contribution which benefits the welfare of those with whom they work and live.

The recent emphasis on what might be called the ‘well-being’ agenda has been of huge importance in addressing increasing levels of distress. Mindfulness, cultivating the power of attention, yoga and various other stillness practices significantly strengthen mental and emotional well-being.

This may be described as the first wing of a bird in full-flight; however, the second wing also needs to be considered. As human beings, the quality of our actions is determined largely by the influences we have absorbed. In order to develop the finest qualities in human nature, education should draw upon the very best that has been thought and written throughout time. Without the nourishment of inspirational ideas which illustrate those time-honoured human virtues upon which civilization depends, we leave a vacuum in which the worst aspects of human nature are left to prevail, unchallenged by more positive forces.

Good character development depends upon the availability, understanding and practice of the finest ideals. It is not sufficient merely to name the virtues or values we admire; if depth of understanding is to take root in our pupils’ intelligence, it is necessary to expand upon the real meaning and significance of these qualities. When our pupils are introduced to the riches of our cultural heritage across the curriculum, they grow in depth and breadth of understanding; their minds become capable of engaging in higher realms of thought where great ideas are penetrated and new understanding emerges which will be of real creative benefit in meeting the challenges of the future.

The importance of the quality of subject content in this respect cannot be overstated. Most schools and parents are currently concerned about the quality of spiritual and moral education. But, fear of religious indoctrination on the one hand and the black hole of secular scepticism on the other, has left a vacuum in many schools: there remains nothing substantial with which to feed the minds and hearts of young people. Yet, close to hand are fine precepts and ideals that have been cherished for generations by cultures and traditions across the world. Once planted in a young heart these notions fructify as the person matures, allowing them to grow in wisdom and enhancing the quality of their life as it unfolds.

In my experience there are a few simple ingredients to providing for the development of good character: short and regular periods of meditative silence which hone the powers of attention and produce gentleness of spirit; the sayings and stories of the great spiritual and cultural traditions; the practical implementation of this inspirational wisdom; teachers who in good measure exemplify the values and virtues taught to the pupils and clear, consistent disciplines for conduct based upon consideration for others.

During my former nineteen year headship of St James Senior Girls’ School and now in my role as Director of Education for the group of St James Schools UK, I have seen how it is possible to provide an education anchored in the love of wisdom and enriched by the regular practice of restorative silence, for children of all age groups and all cultural backgrounds without proselytising or resorting to religious indoctrination of any kind. What it does produce are well-rounded, confident young people who are truly happy to be themselves and keen to offer all that they can, through their particular talents, for the benefit of others.

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