Leading Character Education in Schools

In 2017, the National Federation for Educational Research produced a summary of case studies of "gold standard" character education practice.

  • National Federation for Educational Research, (2017)

In 2017, the National Federation for Educational Research produced a summary of case studies of "gold standard" character education practice. Commissioned by the Association for School and College Leaders (ASCL) and Pearson and undertaken by a team from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). The research project aimed to address a gap identified in the evidence base relating to the leadership and management of character education in schools. As a small-scale qualitative study, it was designed to provide the school sector with practical insights and illustrations rather than robust systematic evidence of the impact of different approaches to leading character education.

Study summary

Character education or character instruction, as it was referred to by one case study school, is a debated term. Although there is no universally accepted definition, character education can be broadly described as an approach to developing a set of values, attitudes, skills and behaviours that are thought to support young people's development and contribute to their success in school and in adult life. These qualities include respect, leadership, motivation, resilience, self-control, self-confidence, social and emotional skills, and communication skills (Education Endowment Foundation, 2016). Perhaps the most comprehensive framework for understanding character education is the one developed in 2017 by The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham. The framework groups a number of different skills into different virtues, described as civic-, moral- and performance-related. Interestingly, none of the case-study schools set out to deliver "character education". Most were focusing on specific skills, identified as important to their pupils' needs, rather than the full range of virtues defined by the Jubilee Centre. However, all of the case-study schools had adopted a whole-school approach to creating a positive school ethos and learning environment considered to help develop young people's character. They also shared a common belief that this would provide the foundations for strong academic achievement and prepare young people for the future.


While there is no recognised blueprint for how character education should be led in schools, a feature common to all of the schools is the leading role of senior leaders. They are leading character education in three main ways by:

  • Highlighting the importance of character education as being central to the culture, values and vision of the school;
  • Taking a whole-school approach to developing the character of pupils; and
  • Exemplifying and communicating positive character traits themselves in the way they interact with governors, colleagues, pupils and parents. However, evidence also emerged to suggest leadership of character education is distributed, with heads of department, heads of year and curriculum leaders often taking responsibility for leading specific aspects of provision.

This NFER conclude by drawing out five key features of the effective leadership of character education, as identified from across five case-study schools:

  • Staff from top to bottom must embrace it - Senior leaders are the driving force behind the leadership of character education. They give pupils meaningful opportunities to share their experiences, perspectives, insights and views as part of an ongoing dialogue with staff about how well the school is performing. All teachers and support staff are responsible for delivering character development in lessons and other activities.
  • Place at the core of school ethos - Character education is a defining part of the ethos of each of the case study schools. This means that developing pupils' character is essential to the schools' values, culture and purpose, and therefore is not an optional, "nice-to-have" or marginal part of the education the schools provide. Staff and pupils live and apply shared values such as respect and tolerance in their daily life in school. Placed at the core of the school's ethos, character education permeates all aspects of what the school does and how it operates.
  • Take a long-term approach - Senior leaders told us that developing or transforming an institutional culture underpinned with shared values and principles is an incremental process. Effective leadership of character education thus entails taking a long-term approach This journey of development and application is often linked to the school's strategy aimed at improving its reputation, pupil enrolment, learning environment, standards of behaviour, pastoral support, academic and wider achievement performance, and standing in the local community.
  • Build a collective understanding and language - Achieving a shared understanding of what character education is and how to support its delivery requires the school community to develop a common language to explore, agree and communicate the meaning of key concepts such as character, values, principles and traits. A common language and shared understanding facilitate communication between staff, between pupils and staff, and between pupils and pupils which is required for putting into action meaningful character development.
  • Maintain focus, momentum and communication - The effective leadership of character education is a continuing process which involves maintaining a focus on what it is, why it is important and what it aims to achieve. A key related leadership task is maintaining the momentum for sustaining a whole-school approach to providing a learning environment and activities which help to develop young people's character.

Implications for practice

Evaluate practice in your setting against five key features of the effective leadership of character education:

  • Staff from top to bottom must embrace it
  • Place at the core of school ethos
  • Take a long-term approach
  • Build a collective understanding and language
  • Maintain focus, momentum and communication.

By Professor Sonia Blandford, chief executive of Achievement for All and visiting professor of education at UCL Institute of Education.

Achievement for All delivers programmes to improve outcomes for children and young people vulnerable to underachievement in early-years, school and post-16 settings across England and Wales.

CYP Now Digital membership

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice
  • Legal updates
  • Local area spotlights

From £170 /year


CYP Now Magazine

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice and interviews
  • Legal updates

From £136 /year