Community Matters: Leading with Character in Education

October 25, 2021
Community Matters: Leading with Character in Education

The below extract is a reflection written by Dr Tom Harrison and Joe McDowell for the eBook Community Matters: Helping Young People Lead with Character in a Post-Covid World. Download the full eBook here.

As the pandemic, lockdowns, and adaptations to learning have all developed over the last two years, one thing has become abundantly clear. While classrooms might have been empty or emptier than normal, schools were never closed and teaching never stopped.

Teachers continued to teach, often in exceptionally difficult circumstances. School leaders continued to innovate, at pace. Pupils continued to learn, albeit often via video lessons or in much-depleted bubbles. While parents and carers, alongside navigating the pressures of their own lives, became emergency educators, ensuing their children’s continued success.

Initial conversations on the required educational responses to the pandemic initially focussed on addressing the academic impact of lockdowns on young people’s educational attainment and the need for catch up tutoring. Yet it is problematic that the impact of the pandemic only be cast in narrow, negative terms, with pupils viewed as being ‘behind’ and needing to ‘catch up’. Such a portrayal is detrimental to pupils’ mental health, which has already suffered during the disruptions caused by lockdowns.

Missing from such exchanges was any national attention to the impact on character development of all parties, pupils, teachers and parents, both in terms of character being a central tenet in any educational response, but also learning from the past year and realising any positive opportunities that have arisen. The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues published its Statement on Character and the Pandemic in March 2021, broadcasting a call for character to be placed at the heart of recovery. Good education cannot exist without good character education and many have expressed the view that social development and well-being should be at the heart of the recovery initiatives. Indeed, Anne Longfield OBE, the former Children’s Commissioner for England, noted that we must focus on,

…Enabling every child, from whatever background, not just to learn in the classroom, but also to develop their own interests at weekends and in the holidays. Finding joy in finding out, with confidence and resilience by forging their own path.

Aristotle, and many others since, have taught us that a community is made up of human relationships. Living together with others and forming positive relationships can help us to lead richer, more meaningful, and more fulfilling lives. Whether they be with immediate peers or more distant connections to others in their communities, most of the relationships that sustain pupils have been, at best, limited or suspended and, at worst, cut off altogether.

Many parents and teachers are aware that there has never been a more important time to prioritise character education. And those communities with schools at their centres, that focus on character in a meaningful, intentional and reflective way, are more likely to re-forge the social bonds fractured by the events of the pandemic.

The flexibility, determination, critical thinking and community awareness needed to adapt to the uncertainty of these new learning settings, or the compassion, civility and patience shown by so many to ensure pupils continued to achieve, and indeed often by the pupils themselves as well, while challenging we should not lose sight of the fact that for many this has been a time of positive character development.

And yet, thus far, a character focus has been almost wholly absent from policy and press attention. This is certainly a missed opportunity. The recovery curriculum could be framed as an opportunity for creativity, courage and adventure, reconnecting with local communities through social action and service, while also providing the space to reflect, consolidate and celebrate those positive character traits exhibited by so many people, in so many different ways over the past 18 months.

Taught in classrooms, caught in communities and sought by pupils who have benefited from positive role models and the opportunities to thrive, character provides a language for young people to act with purpose and to fulfil their potential. We must support young people by helping them to learn in creative ways, together with others, enabling them and those around them in their communities to build back stronger, toward a shared, flourishing future.


This reflection was written by Dr Tom Harrison and Joe McDowell for the eBook Community Matters: Helping Young People Lead with Character in a Post-Covid World. Download the full eBook here.

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