Helping young people develop leadership and character – what might a school look like?

Children at UFA - University of the First Age

The Department for Education has announced the school winners of the inaugural Character Awards – congratulations to all award winners and the national winner –the Leadership Academy.

Debate in the Twittersphere about the Awards has been fierce.  For some, the overwhelmingly traditional nature of the winners was a disappointment (army cadets, classical music, fencing, and a heavy focus on the extracurricular and those students who ‘do’).  For others, that character can be taught at all is controversial. For those who believe it can be taught, or at least learnt, the familiar debate begins about whether discrete lessons or embedding it across the wider curriculum is the best way forward.

Children at UFA - University of the First Age

UFA has been working for almost 20 years to develop leadership skills and characteristics in young people and we have worked with hundreds of schools during this time. So, as a charity looking to support schools, what do we believe are the key ingredients of a school that would successfully nurture in its students the leadership skills and attributes to enable them to be better learners and responsible citizens?

Here are our top 10*

1. Staff and young people realise that leadership (of self and others) is integral to learning.

2. The development of these characteristics is not left to chance. Work on leadership characteristics, and the skills that underpin them sit alongside academic qualifications as the way that the school values, measures, and promotes its success (regardless of what the current school accountability framework says).

3. The senior leadership team understands that power needs to be shared with young people and sees the value of doing this. The locus of control can be openly questioned.

4. Young people have voice and influence. This is evident both through meaningful leadership roles that are visible and powerful in the formal structures of the school but also in more informal day-to-day ways of working; the dialogue between students and staff reflects this.

5. Those working with children and young people model the leadership behaviours that they want them to develop.

6. School staff draw on the best available evidence and thinking about character and leadership, from within education and across other sectors. Critically, they do not only draw on published research but their own and colleagues’ action research.

7. The curriculum is developed, facilitated and evaluated by and with young people.

8. Everyone associated with the school is able to articulate the school’s vision for leadership in words that have meaning for them.

9. The development of leadership and work on character is considered an entitlement. It is delivered in a way that reaches all children and young people not just those identified as needing it and not only those who have parents and carers who are able to support their involvement in residentials and extracurricular events.

10. Know that no approach is ever perfect, and that while steps 1-9 are important there are other approaches that will work too. Openness, humility and a desire to learn from others are the trademark of a school modelling good leadership in practice.

*this is our thinking now… like all good learning organisations, these 10 are likely to develop over time and need to be challenged. We know that our own staff and the young people we work with will provide that challenge. We hope that the schools and other organisations we work with will help take our thinking forward too.

Children at UFA - University of the First Age

For schools wanting to develop this kind of work, our Learning Essentials might be of interest. These Learning Essentials underpin all of our programmes, which are one way for schools to work on the development of leadership and character through specific approaches such as peer tutoring, NCS, training students to be researchers, social action leaders, digital leaders and a whole range of other leadership roles.  We want all the young people we work with to develop the following skills and characteristics to be able to say ‘I can…’ and ‘I am…’

I can I am

As for the DfE Character Awards? We should all take a second look at the winners, because all have something to offer and all deserve huge credit for seeing the value in young people as leaders.


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