Demos: Get pupils out of the classroom and into the community to teach character

School coursework should be revamped to encourage learning out of the classroom and let pupils gain valuable character skills to prepare them for later life.

The idea is being championed by the think tank Demos, who suggests traditional desk-based projects could be replaced with volunteering-style tasks, or what educational experts call ‘service learning’.

The idea could see pupils researching and giving guided tours of local historical monuments, teaching pensioners IT skills, or coaching younger pupils to play new sports.

Politicians from all sides have spoken about the importance of teaching character in schools, indicating a shift towards more project-based learning would help arm pupils with sufficient soft skills for employability upon leaving school.

In a speech earlier this year, Education Security Michael Gove said employers are looking for young people who are ‘self-disciplined’ and suggested schools could cultivate skills through co-curricular activities such as team sports, cadet forces or drama.

Meanwhile Labour’s education spokesperson Tristram Hunt recently echoed the sentiment that character education should be included in initial teacher training. He added, “we should encourage all schools to embed character education and resilience across their curriculum.”

Demos interviewed almost 100 young people who had grown up attending a Scout Group to determine the experience and soft skills they had gained from community based activities.

Researchers found that teaching in a real-life setting helped students develop a range of skills including teamwork, determination, public speaking and mixing with people from different backgrounds.

A recent Demos poll of 500 teachers found that 88% believe that volunteering benefits students the most in terms of improving their soft skills, while only 2% regarded coursework as one of the three best ways of helping students build character.

The report also recommends:

– A more explicit link between activity-based learning and employability skills, whilst ensuring this doesn’t jeopardise the ‘fun aspect’ that attracts young people.
– Engaging local businesses in the benefits of community learning with employers facilitating work experience and holding employer fairs for young people.
– Organisations such as the Scouts could create vocational-based awards specifically for skills young people can benefit from in employment, higher education or apprenticeships.

Jonathan Birdwell, Head of the Citizenship Programme at Demos and author of the report, said:

“We hear a lot recently about how the labour market will undergo a dramatic transformation over the next 10 to 15 years, and that robots will soon be doing many of our jobs. While teaching students to code is one way to prepare for this future – character is just as important to help them succeed in any career they choose.”

“Philosophers have written about character for centuries. Finally politicians from all parties are beginning to recognise character has a vital role in the modern world, and that schools need to play a central role in nurturing it.”

“The concept of character stresses the value of skills like team working, leadership, confidence and communication. Our research suggests that these abilities are most likely to be taught to young people through activities that get them outside of the classroom and into their communities.”

Wayne Bulpitt, Chief Commissioner of The Scout Association, said:

“The current political focus on how we build character among young people is something which the Scouts warmly welcome. For too long, there has been a belief that character and resilience were either something children inherited through their genes or that such qualities were too old-fashioned for our modern world.

“For over a century, Scouting has been dedicated to helping young people build character, skills which have the power to transform lives and societies. It is character, not just academic qualifications, which are the attributes which are vital for a more fulfilling life and which every employer values in their staff.

“This research acts as a timely reminder that the key to helping our young people become more successful lies in schools and organisations like the Scouts working in partnership, not in silos.”



The report, Scouting for Skills, authored by Jonathan Birdwell and Ian Wybron is published by Demos on Thursday May 15 2014.

This research was supported by The Scouts Association.

Case studies are available for broadcast interviews.