Thoughts on …                                                                        12/12/18


Climbing trees, and the C in BVC             



Let them climb trees.  Or as the headline across the front page of a national newspaper put it: Climb trees to build character, Education Secretary tells kids.1


The report that accompanies the headline states the education secretary’s belief that building character is a vital aspect of a child’s education and should be a priority. Based on an idea he came across when visiting a school in Bristol he would like primary schools to offer a wide range of extra-curricular activities including those that can be seen as building character – hiking, abseiling and climbing a tree, for example.2


Character is one of a trio of human attributes I choose to call BVC – behaviour, values and character. They are fundamental to our individual and collective lives and without them human existence would be governed solely by instinct. All three attributes need to be developed within children from the earliest age; developed by parents and families, by teachers, by religions and by many other organisations to which young people belong – guides, scouts, youth clubs, sports clubs, orchestras and more.


Developing behaviour, values and character has long been considered the responsibility of schools as well as parents with behaviour receiving the most attention in terms of both the practicalities of shaping it and discussion of theories about it. Values and character seem to have received less explicit attention, especially in the past few decades, but have nevertheless continued to be seen as essential components of human learning and development. In school they have formed part of the non-academic curriculum.


I associate the development of character more with independent schools than the state sector. Stretching back over the centuries boarding schools believed that an ethos of education based on discipline and privation would build character by making their pupils emotionally and mentally stronger.

But what do we mean by the term? Its meaning certainly still includes those qualities associated with the public school tradition of bygone years such as resilience, steadfastness and fortitude. But it should mean more than this.


For me character is the very essence of who we are, the very essence of our being. Which makes an understanding of what it is, and how it is put to use, one of the most fundamental aspects of our lives. Who we are, and how we conduct ourselves, as individuals, or with our loved ones, or in society at large, are the crucial questions that should follow from any consideration of character. They are questions that take us into the realms of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience and they should occupy our thoughts rather more than they do at present. 


Character is closely linked with behaviour and values. It is something within us that impels us to exhibit similar, quite fixed patterns of behaviour, often based on the key values we hold, when particular situations arise. Most of it is shaped by those around us but some of it is probably genetically determined.


We are all made up of many different character traits, some being more to the fore than others in different individuals. These traits gives us our overall character. It is worth noting that our character can be different with different people and in different situations. And it is also worth pondering the extent to which our character is what other people believe it is, or what we ourselves like to believe it is.


What, then, are some of the many traits that make up a person’s character? How perhaps would we describe ourselves? And what about my own character? Obsessive, without a doubt, and opinionated, probably, but, I hope, conscientious and fairly determined; honest and reliable, sensitive and considerate, but not as confident, daring or resilient as I could be. And hopefully possessing a few more positive qualities to add to the list.


Qualities such as: being modest, courteous, generous, helpful and tolerant; being industrious, self-reliant and steadfast; being loving and affectionate, kind and gentle; and being courageous.


Qualities that most of us consider to be undesirable also make up our character, of course. These would include being selfish, intolerant, bad-tempered, aggressive, controlling, and conceited. Needless to say it could only be saints who did not possess elements of some of these undesirable qualities in their character.3


Having listed some familiar qualities of character the next stage in the discussion is to decide whether, and by how much, we should we try to develop and alter its overall shape. My position, and I am sure the position of most people, is that there should be no doubt at all that we should be trying to develop character – at home, in school and anywhere else. The reason why is clear: to ensure the well-being of individuals and the good of society, with as much being done as is necessary to achieve these two aims. 


There can surely be no argument that we instil desirable character in children and young people for the sake of their own well-being and the good of society. It must be right for children to become industrious and determined. This will be essential for their future employment and their daily lives. It must be right for them to become reliable – essential also for their future employment and for friendships and relationships. It must be right to help them become emotionally and mentally resilient so they can adapt to the many difficult situations they will encounter in life.


And for the good of society, to ensure that we live in the best possible harmony with one another, it must be right to help people become courteous, respectful, tolerant and kind, as well as prevent them from becoming the opposite.


Developing character does not mean we will all end up with identical personalities. We will not become clones. There are too many shades of character traits for this to happen and too many different combinations of traits.   


But how should we go about this crucial task of shaping character? As the education secretary is proposing we should certainly persuade children and young people to participate in challenging activities such as abseiling, caving and, indeed, climbing trees. This will contribute to the development of their confidence and determination. Other sorts of challenges like performing in a play, singing in a choir or speaking in public will also help develop these attributes. Children should take part in as many of these activities as possible and should engage in them frequently.


In their lessons and assemblies pupils from primary to secondary age should learn about people from the past and present who have shown impressive qualities of character in their lives – courage, compassion, resilience and determination. There are numerous examples. People from the past that come to mind are Grace Darling, Helen Keller and Douglas Bader, and from recent times Stephen Hawking, Ignacio Echeverria who died confronting knife-wielding terrorists with his skateboard, and the nurses and doctors who volunteered to assist with the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.4 Pupils can discuss their actions and achievements, write short biographies of them and make up plays to bring their qualities to life.


They can be encouraged to think about the qualities of character required by successful sportspeople, particularly Paralympians. They can consider the qualities of those whose work demands the highest levels of character – members of the armed forces, paramedics, police officers and firefighters, for example. And they can talk about the qualities of character they see around them in their families and among people they know.


But by far the best way to shape character is to place a much greater emphasis on developing it in the practicalities and interactions of daily life. Along with instilling desirable behaviour and values, developing character must become an integral part of family and school life. In order for it to be shaped in the best way possible its qualities have to be put into practice in everyday living. They have to be used regularly in every home, in every school and in every situation.


Parents, teachers and other adults must constantly reinforce positive aspects of character in children and young people, however wearing this can often be. I know everyone tries to do this but there is more that can be done. In addition adults must set an example to the young by demonstrating good character on all occasions.5 It would be beneficial, too, if all of us spent some time asking questions of our own character and answering them as honestly as we can.


At home parents must insist their children speak politely, always say thank you for what is done for them, carry out any domestic tasks reliably, return home at the correct time after going out, apply themselves conscientiously to their homework, and do not become argumentative or angry if they do not get their own way. 


In school teachers must actively encourage character development in the lessons and routines that are a normal part of school life. In order to develop the qualities of determination and diligence they must have high expectations of their pupils’ work in all subjects. To build confidence they can use various gymnastic activities in PE lessons, and they can build a different sort of confidence by requiring children to take part in school productions. They can use sport to help build resilience through distance running, team games and competing against one another individually. And if they insist that at all times their pupils are courteous, considerate and kind to each other, and to their teachers, these qualities of character will become habitual.


I am pleased the education secretary has decided there needs to be a greater emphasis on the non-academic curriculum. This is a welcome change of tone which I would like to see applied in a thorough analysis of the whole purpose of education. For understandable reasons schools have become completely obsessed with a production line model of learning designed to deliver just one thing: good grades in examinations.6 As a result more important goals are receiving insufficient attention and education is being diminished.


For the sake of our children and grandchildren we urgently need to rethink our priorities.7 We need to be instilling the highest standards of behaviour, values and character in our young people and we need this to be central to our educational endeavour. So, yes, let’s see children climbing trees but much more importantly let’s make it an absolute priority to teach the best possible BVC at home and in school.





1   The i newspaper, 22/11/18

2   The list produced by the school covers much more than character building activities. It is a list of experiences designed to enrich a pupil’s childhood and extend learning beyond the normal curriculum. I would make one of the enrichment experiences – growing vegetables – compulsory.

3   I am conscious of the fact that qualities of character are being discussed in simplistic terms without any attempt to define what are complex aspects of human behaviour. Nevertheless I expect we broadly understand what is meant by them.

4   See:                                        

5   e.g. footballers who argue with the referee are setting a poor example.

6   See GCSEs fail the test

7   Chapter 7 of Forever Learning examines the purposes of education.