Closing the Inequalities Gap on Character Education

“I have never visited a school that excelled academically, which didn’t also excel in extra-curricular activities. As top heads and teachers already know, sports clubs, orchestras and choirs, school plays, cadets, debating competitions, all help to build character and instill grit, to give children’s talents and an opportunity to grow and to allow them to discover new talents they never knew they had.”

It may raise an eyebrow to be told that the above quote comes from Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for Education – given the renowned focus on academic standards during his tenure.

You may be further taken aback to find out that in this at least, the teaching profession is fully in agreement with him. In original polling for Learning by Doing, our report supported by The Scout Association and published today, nine out of ten teachers agreed that non-formal learning activities – sport, debating, drama, music, uniformed activities and so on – offer benefits to their students.

They went further in their support: 72 per cent agreed that non-formal learning should be recognised in the curriculum, and 63 per cent even thought it should be compulsory. 68 per cent of teachers disagreed that schools should only focus on the formal aspects of the curriculum, and 68 per cent agreed that given the opportunity they would like to help deliver more non-formal education activities in their schools.

This level of support for reform in the education system from those on the front line – given the breakneck pace of change of late – is remarkable. But we also found similar levels of demand among young people. Asked which activities they wanted to see more of in their schools, 43 per cent of 14-18 year olds said uniformed activities (like Scouts or cadets), 24 per cent said volunteering opportunities, and 23 per cent and 22 per cent said deliberative and outdoor activities respectively.

This is why it is so concerning that we found patterns of inequality in accessing these activities. Fewer students on free school meals (FSM) reported participating in sport (54 per cent vs 64 per cent non-FSM), outdoor activities (33 per cent vs 43 per cent non-FSM) and social action (26 per cent vs 34 per cent non-FSM) than their counterparts. It is a similar story when comparing opportunities available to those attending state schools with those attending independent schools. Worryingly, those eligible for FSM were also more likely to be educationally disengaged, and to want to see non-formal learning activities count towards qualifications.

There is a great deal of evidence, summarised in the report, that non-formal learning done well can contribute both to academic attainment and to character development. Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State, has expressed both the priority her department places on character education and the role that activities like sport, drama and debating can play in developing social and emotional skills in students. This report reveals such an approach will be popular with teachers and students.

So what is the role of policy in all this? What should DfE do if they want to close this opportunity gap?

It’s worth stating that teachers emphasised one barrier more than any others – with 90 per cent citing a lack of time dedicated to these kinds of activities. In the course of our research, we heard anecdotally how these activities were more and more in competition with those that were thought to directly improve attainment: subject-specific interventions; homework clubs. Rebalancing school accountability and student assessment as described in our report Character Nation will help schools and teachers find the time to provide these activities.

But as schools are increasingly making their own decisions, and are being asked to do so on the basis of good evidence, perhaps the most important thing to do is to strengthen the evidence base of the effectiveness of these activities in improving attainment and developing character.

This should be done in two ways: first, finding out what works in practice through pilots and evaluations, where those experienced in non-formal learning work closely with schools to develop programmes that can be taken up across the system. This is an approach that the Department are already pursuing through its programme of Character Grants – through which we will be evaluating a learning-by-doing pilot delivered by The Scout Association, for publication in March 2016.

But we also need to know the picture at the aggregate level, so that we can tease out any differences by school type or demographics – which is why we call for participation in extra-curricular activity to be monitored through the school census. With these data, it becomes possible to establish an accurate national picture of opportunities to participate in these activities, and identify any blackspots.

These measures and others outlined in the report will help to tackle the extra-curricular opportunity gap, and in turn ensure all young people have the capabilities they need to live happy and productive lives.