Alex Masters

Educating Ruby: the importance of character in education

Character-building is just as important as achieving good grades, Guy Claxton argues. Optimus content lead, Alex Masters, reports on his compelling speech at the recent Festival of Education.

‘I kept telling them I needed the Albert Hall!’ Guy Claxton joked as yet more people squeezed into the already-packed conference room at Wellington College to hear his highly sought after opinion on character education. It was day two of the Festival of Education 2015 and, as delegates lined the walls, sat on the floor, even leant through the open window from outside, it was all too clear that character was the hot topic.

But who is Ruby?

She is, according to Claxton, ‘the granddaughter of Rita’. This is referring to ‘Educating Rita’, the screenplay by Willy Russell which was turned into a film starring Julie Walters. Alluding to the character of Rita, a working-class young woman with a passion for literature, is a prime example of grit and enthusiasm overriding limited technical ability. Claxton, a cognitive scientist, then set a scenario for the audience: ‘Imagine you’re a secondary headteacher. You’re stopped in the street by a young woman who used to be at your school. She says: “Thank you for the quality of the education at your school.” You remember that she did badly and left school with just two Ds. You ask her: “What do you mean?” What do you think Ruby said?’ After a moment of sharing potential ideas with our neighbours, Claxton gave Ruby’s answer. ‘She said: “You helped me develop my self-confidence and build my self-respect. You gave me faith that what I thought was worth thinking. I achieved many worthwhile things that weren’t academic. 'You helped me become curious and made me feel my questions were worth asking. I learned that everyone makes mistakes, so I’m always up for a challenge. You helped me become more collaborative and I wasn’t afraid to ask or offer help. I’m not on edge, thinking that what I say might be stupid.’” What an answer. What a clear example of the power schools have to develop character. As Claxton explained, Ruby had a range of positive attributes, including:

  • confidence
  • curiosity
  • collaboration
  • communication
  • creativity
  • commitment
  • craftsmanship.

Rigour and knowledge work together with life skills

Then Claxton introduced us to another (fictional) student. Who felt:

  • defeated
  • dumb
  • disengaged
  • a dogsbody
  • distanced
  • deadbeat
  • a drifter.

‘It’s very, very important that we move beyond this oppositional view of rigour and knowledge on the one hand and life skills on the other: they work together like warp and weft,’ Claxton argued. ‘Can you imagine a school saying: “We want a quiet, dumb, passive, credulous student with four As”?’ Yet sadly, Claxton stated, that has been the experience for a substantial number of young people. He alluded to a recent report from the CBI called First Steps which states that rigour in the curriculum is ‘only part of the solution’. And, citing Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed, Claxton lists some of the key attributes schools need to cultivate in pupils:

  • grit
  • self-control
  • curiosity
  • social-intelligence
  • gratitude
  • optimism
  • zest
  • adventurous
  • imaginative
  • resilient.

Research shows that people with these attributes are often more successful in life, despite their grades. ‘Besides’, Claxton stressed, ‘four As only has currency because other people didn’t get them!’ Then there is the flipside: the thousands of high-achievers who, to quote Piaget, ‘don’t know what to do when they don’t know what to do’.

Not just a bolt-on

For this type of education to succeed, academic rigour alongside character-building, Claxton stated it has to permeate the school, not just be a bolt-on. He offered these suggestions for embedding it in the whole school culture:

  • school website
  • communication with parents
  • displays and images
  • report writing
  • lesson design
  • timetable structure
  • feedback and assessment
  • professional development.

‘Education is for all,’ he concluded, ‘not just the studious.’

Additional resources

Having trouble accessing the resources above? Why not find out how Optimus supports schools with their CPD provision and request a demo of In-House Training and Knowledge Centre.


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