How do we build character in young people?

This year’s BSA’s Annual Conference for Heads focused on building character and as Jo Golding found out, there are a plethora of opportunities within boarding schools

The Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) held its Annual Conference for Heads from 7–8 May at London’s Park Plaza Riverbank hotel this year. The BSA represents 590 boarding schools globally, which consist of both independent and state boarding schools.

Nick Wergan, headmaster of Steyning Grammar School and chairman of the BSA, said the association had two new school members join this year which have decided to introduce boarding into their schools. Alongside this positive news, Wergan addressed difficult challenges the sector faces: recruitment and retention of teachers, safeguarding, pensions, Brexit and rising costs being just some of them. However, there was a room full of school leaders who came together to get ideas to take back to their own schools, hoping to conquer these issues.

“Our boarding schools are uniquely advantaged by the opportunities they have to build character,” said Wergan.

But what are the most important aspects of character? For Wergan, it’s grit, zest and gratitude. Other school leaders tweeted their thoughts throughout the day, bringing up words such as responsibility, humility, understanding, kindness and respect.

Our boarding schools are uniquely advantaged by the opportunities they have to build character

How do you develop these traits in students? I will discuss a few of the solutions presented at the conference below that you can consider for your own schools.

Firstly, these characteristics can be built by helping the local community. The BSA introduced a new initiative in January called On Board. The community action programme has been designed to increase support for local communities from boarding schools and to highlight this to external stakeholders. Help could include litter picking, visiting elderly people and environmental planting. Wergan said: “I hope it will prove to be an equally strong sister project to The Boarding Orchard.”

Secondly, having more out of classroom learning experiences (OOCLES) can help. Dr Simon Beames from the University of Edinburgh surveyed 1,183 past pupils about their experiences at Gordonstoun School and found that 94% reported that OOCLES had a positive influence on their personal growth. Seventy-four per cent felt that OOCLES had a positive influence on their career.

He also outlined the key elements to successful OOCLES. Expeditions or multi-day trips were the most powerful, as they allowed young people to push their physical and mental boundaries. Having a mix of international students was important, as well as unfamiliar challenges with support but minimal direction. Another factor to consider was opportunities to lead or take responsibility for others.

Lisa Kerr, principal of Gordonstoun School, said there are challenges with adopting an outdoor learning strategy, such as cost and getting the balance of outdoor and academic experiences right, but added: “This research is relevant for our entire sector. It shows that character can be taught. They learn to just give it a go and not be afraid to fail in front of people, which normalises it.”

Character can also be built through mental health programmes. The attendees heard from Marina Gardiner Legge, headmistress of Heathfield School, about being the first UK school to adopt the Flourishing at School programme.

Flourishing at School is based around PERMA: positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment. A Flourishing Profile assesses the degree to which individuals have developed the pillars of good mental health. As a preventive tool, it ensures the student stay well throughout their education.

The BSA heads conference was a great opportunity for teachers to catch up, share notes and most importantly be inspired by potentially life-changing ideas.


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