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Reigate Grammar School Headmaster Shaun Fenton on the need for schools to develop character

PUBLISHED: 12:10 05 May 2017 | UPDATED: 14:57 10 May 2017

Reigate Grammar students on a Duke of Edinburgh's Gold Award hike

Reigate Grammar students on a Duke of Edinburgh's Gold Award hike


Exam results can open doors of opportunity but personal qualities of character will determine a happy and successful adult life and make the biggest difference.

Published in A+ Education Spring 2017

Schools, in partnership with parents, have an essential part to play to empower young people to become the best version of themselves without being weighed for worth by exam certificates. Children need to be understood, not measured.

Grades, certificates and league tables only measure half of what makes a great education. They do not measure crucial elements of growing up such as quality of friendships, formative experiences, life-long memories, preparedness for adult life, team-working skills or leadership qualities.

Developing qualities of character is not rocket science: opportunities in artistic, sporting, cultural and other arenas are worth their weight in gold. In his poem, If, the most voted for poem and the nation’s favourite, Kipling wrote that life’s success relies upon being able to learn from mistakes and disappointments as well as from successes: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster”. This was never more true.

On the sports field, children learn to be team players and leaders; in Enterprise competitions, they learn to be analytical as well as that sometimes you should trust your instincts; as a cadet or on Duke of Edinburgh Award expeditions, you learn to plan well but also to be able to change your plans; in a play or orchestra, you learn about the importance of hard work and practice so that you are ready to perform when it really matters. In a school community with huge focus on relationships and pastoral care, you learn the importance of compassion and integrity and that the most important truth of all is being true to oneself.

I have been the headteacher of a state comprehensive school, a state grammar school, an academy and now a leading independent school. Whilst some state schools do all of the above really well, many work with insufficient resources, overstretched teachers, large class sizes, Government interference and a compliance culture where character development never quite seems to matter because it’s immeasurable on an Ofsted league table.

In the independent sector we work in a very different and liberating environment, free from a compliance culture and rather than league table accountability, we are accountable to the daily experience of children in our care and their future life chances.

These students’ independence allows them to value far more than Ofsted’s data or league table scores. At an independent school it is easier to surf over this year’s politically-motivated target and focus on helping children to be – and do – their best even when these types of outcomes cannot be put in a spread sheet.

To be clear, the extra-curricular programme doesn’t only develop character: it needs to be a thought-through, purposeful and supported growth mind-set approach to supporting children through their formative years.

Only in the school environment can we join ongoing daily pastoral care with formal learning, character development through extra-curricular programmes and with a plethora of opportunities for younger students to work with and learn from older students as part of, for example, the House system.

The cohesiveness of this approach cannot be replicated with some weekend clubs, whether or not these clubs are excellent. Character development is at its best when part of a joined up, holistic approach – a programme with purpose. It is the most important thing that takes place in a school. It is real education; it is what lasts.

I believe it is what Albert Einstein meant when he wrote that “Education is what remains when you have forgotten everything that you learned at school”. That is character education.

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