New non-statutory guidance on character education for pupils

The DfE has issued new non-statutory guidance on character education for pupils, which applies to all types of school. The guidance defines character as encompassing, amongst other things, social confidence, respect for others, a strong moral conscience, a focus on long-term goals and the cultivation of virtues such as courage, honesty and humility.

It introduces six benchmarks for schools to measure their character education against, although these benchmarks are non-statutory and the DfE will not require schools to submit data about how well they meet the benchmarks.

What is the current position?

All schools (including academies and independent fee paying schools) have a legal duty to promote the spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development of pupils (SMSC), and character education contributes to this duty to promote SMSC.

For state-funded schools, Relationships, Sex and Health Education statutory guidance makes clear that schools should actively promote character traits such as respect and honesty and Ofsted now judges such schools on the personal development of their pupils in all Section 5 and Section 8 inspections. The Independent Schools Inspectorate also recognises the importance of developing a range of character attributes, such as resilience and grit, when considering how a school prepares its pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life in British society.

What is the purpose of the guidance?

The guidance aims to provide schools with practical advice for improving their provision of character education, with the six benchmarks acting as a checklist which schools can self-evaluate against in the context of their own setting. Similarly, the annexes to the guidance list organisations that provide advice to and partner with schools on the delivery of character education, as well as a set of case studies of schools that successfully nurture positive character traits in their pupils.

The guidance also explains the rationale for character education, and explains the main barriers to character development in schools (such as the difficulty that disadvantaged pupils face in accessing extracurricular activities and excessive staff workloads), and how best to overcome them.

What are the six benchmarks?
  1. What kind of school are we?
  2. What are our expectations of behaviour towards each other?
  3. How well do our curriculum and teaching develop resilience and confidence?
  4. How good is our co-curriculum provision?
  5. How well do we promote the value of volunteering and service to others?
  6. How do we ensure that all our pupils benefit equally from what we offer?

Full details of the benchmarks can be found in the DfE guidance.

What is the practical effect of the guidance?

The guidance does not impose a new legal obligation on schools, although it signals an increasing emphasis by the DfE and Ofsted on promoting character education, and its provisions set out what schools will need to consider if they are to comply with their existing legal duties. It therefore provides a useful tool for all schools, particularly those seeking to strengthen and expand their provision of character education.

The law and practice referred to in this article has been paraphrased or summarised. It might not be up-to-date with changes in the law and we do not guarantee the accuracy of any information provided at the time of reading. It should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice in relation to a specific set of circumstances.

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