The importance of character building

Berkhamsted School Principal Mark Steed discusses the role independent schools play in building the character of their pupils

As a child, when my mother wanted me to do something that I didn’t really want to do, she would describe the experience as ‘character-building’. For her, the term was a catch-all that would cover anything from visiting an elderly relative, to speaking in public, to conquering a peak in the Lake District – usually in the pouring rain. Looking back, she was right – those formative experiences made an enormous contribution to the person that I am today. 

The word “character” derives from the Greek kharassō (χαράσσω), which means “I engrave”. Character is something that is “etched into” us by the experiences that we have as we go through life. 

Character building experiences take us out of our comfort zones and force us to ‘dig deep’ to find new resources within ourselves. 

The experiences that we have when we are young are particularly influential for they shape the adult that we become. That is why Independent Schools are in the business of character-building. 

Good schools do so much more than focus on attaining a top set of examination passes. They seek to develop the whole person. Indeed, some of the most important parts of a good education take place outside the classroom – for these are the parts of the curriculum that provide the most character-building opportunities. It is for this reason that many independent schools have a commitment to an all-round education that aims to give young people a range of experiences which will both stretch and challenge them. 

In every school there will always be those for whom the stage, the concert hall, the sports field and the expedition centre will be a second home and independent schools have an outstanding track record of providing the facilities and expertise that will allow these pupils to develop their talents to the highest possible level. The number of former independent school pupils who make it to the top in music, theatre and sport is testimony to the sector’s collective success in these areas. However, we must also recognise that for others these arenas provide challenges which take them out of their personal comfort zones: some young people find that performing or speaking in public doesn’t come naturally; others dislike physical challenge in any of its forms. This is genuine character-building territory. 

Independent schools invest considerable resources into providing specialist facilities, staffing and time to provide outstanding extra-curricular programmes. They are fortunate enough to have specialist sports pitches and indoor spaces, swimming pools, theatres, music practice rooms, rehearsal spaces. They do so, not just to provide for a sporting, theatrical and musical elite, but also to provide opportunities for all. One of the significant differences between the maintained and independent sectors is the extent to which a school can provide an extra-curricular programme – not just for a few, but for all. 

At Berkhamsted, every pupil is expected to be involved in a play, to sing on stage in a choir, to represent the school at a sport and to serve the local community. We believe that every pupil should have the opportunity to experience the teamwork and camaraderie that comes from being in a dramatic production, a choir or from being part of a sports team. Above all, every pupil should be taken out of their comfort zone – to have to do something that they would rather not do, but something of which they would be very proud to have achieved after the event. 

Outdoor education in all of its forms has an enormous part to play in building character. Young people learn more about themselves and about their peers when they are exposed to challenging situations, be that camping out for the very first time, abseiling down a cliff or completing a high ropes course. 

Outdoor education provides opportunities for young people to face fears and to manage risk. Sometimes the lessons are learned the hard way: a poorly constructed shelter or the wrong choice of clothing can mean a damp few hours, but the individual is wiser the next time. Few meals are more satisfying than those cooked on a camp-fire outside one’s tent with one’s friends after a day navigating one’s way around the Lake District or Brecon Beacons. Memories, friendships, trust and, of course, character are forged here. 

It is for these reasons that Berkhamsted has made outdoor education a compulsory part of its wider curriculum so that every pupil has a ‘bushcraft’ experience and the opportunity to sleep under canvas. Climbing and ski clubs, a vibrant Combined Cadet Force and an extensive Duke of Edinburgh Award programme give further opportunities in these areas. 

Schools are under increasing pressure to deliver measurable results, but some of the most significant parts of education don’t lend themselves to metrics – building character falls into this category. It is arguably the most important thing that we do.

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