Mark Pike, Reader in Education, School of Education, University of Leeds, Hillary Place, School of Education, LS2 9JT, England This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



Character education is important within the Christian tradition but is viewed with suspicion by educators who privilege autonomy as the
aim of a liberal education. Equally, Christians may have concerns that character education places too great an emphasis upon good works rather than God’s grace. This article reasons that character education need not be indoctrinatory, in the pejorative sense, on the one hand nor conflated with Christianity on the other. It shows that Christian-ethos
schools can promote the autonomy of their students in matters of religion while also providing character education that enables them to choose well. Research from a case study of character education in a school with a Christian ethos is drawn upon to illustrate the capacity such schools have for sharing values while disagreeing about their sources. This is seen as an important feature of character education that is critical and also fosters a tolerant, respectful and inclusive school and society. It is suggested that acknowledging this complexity demonstrates an appreciation of the value of the Christian tradition in character education and the value of this tradition within schooling. It also clearly distinguishes between being a Christian and being of good character.



Character Education, Indoctrination and Autonomy

Character education, whereby children are taught with the intention that they should acquire certain values and virtues, tends to be viewed with suspicion, and even alarm, by those who privilege the autonomy of children, where they ‘make up their own minds’, as the aim of schooling. Indeed, in some quarters, character education is even regarded as indoctrinatory and an infringement of children’s rights. Yet autonomy, where children make their own decisions, has recently been discredited as the aim of a liberal education on the basis that it is often better for young people to take advice and guidance rather than to act independently in some situations. Further, the claim (following Kant) that a person, ‘is only truly autonomous when her decisions are not affected by wants or like or cares about, but are determined by pure practical reason alone’ (Hand, 2006, p. 541) has been considered inadequate because ‘commitments are held by individuals who are not entirely rational and emotionless any more than they are completely solitary and autonomous’ (Pike, 2009, p. 140). Certainly, for many Christians, as well as many others, ‘wants or likes or cares’ are not to be eschewed (in favour of a valorising of reason) but directed and disciplined. For many believers, freedom is not doing whatever one wants but being free not to act upon desires that are proscribed by sacred texts and teachings. Christians are not only able to exercise ‘autonomy via faith’ (McLaughlin, 1984, p.79) but come to ‘faith via autonomy’ as choices concerning how to act are influenced by those beliefs that are considered authoritative for living.


It is a justifiable (and rational) educational aim for young people to learn that they can make choices, adopt beliefs and act ethically. As an aim of schooling autonomy is necessary but not sufficient because the autonomy of students should not be considered apart from the ethics of the choices they make. Yet, many teachers feel uncomfortable when it comes to teaching children how to live and feel nervous about notions of moral or values education (Halstead and Pike, 2006). One of the reasons for the reluctance to teach specific values is that teachers do not want to be accused of indoctrination. The sobering reality, of course, is that all teachers are indoctrinators (although not in the pejorative sense) for a ‘doctrine’ is a ‘teaching’ and an occupational hazard of teaching is that one usually leads learners into particular ‘teachings’. But it gets ‘worse’; not only are all teachers ‘indoctrinators’, all schools are ‘faith schools’ because schooling cannot be value-neutral and is always underpinned by notions of aims, origins, purpose and destiny even if these are hidden. Schooling is an instrumental practice that seeks to change children in specific ways. Even if we do not focus on value-laden lessons within the curriculum, the processes and procedures of schools, as well as the attitudes and interactions of people in them, all communicate powerful messages to children about what is worth worshipping and what is worthless, what is more valuable and what is less valuable. The question is not whether we teach children how to live but how we will do so and what values we will teach.


Character Education in a Changing Culture

Character education entails the inculcation of specific values and virtues but this brings us to the question of whether there are values we can all agree on in our society. Which values is it morally acceptable to teach? If moral values are not widely shared in society then whose moral values should be taught? It might well appear that:


In Britain, as in much of the world, we live in a pluralistic society in which our values appear to be constantly changing and in which children are presented with and exposed to all kinds of opinions about right and wrong. Assumptions about right and wrong are undergoing a profound change and our culture is moving away from its Judeo-Christian foundations to such an extent that there seem to be no agreed moral criteria left for judging right and wrong.

(Arthur, 2005, p. 249)


In such a context, what is left that is ‘shared’ is perhaps unlikely to be a comprehensive moral vision. While President Obama’s inaugural speech may depict America’s diversity as a strength, the image is now of a ‘patchwork’ rather than a ‘melting pot’:


For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth

(Obama, 2008)


As far as their character education is concerned, when the children of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and others, as well as those described as ‘nonbelievers’, attend the same school, what should they be taught? Should these children only be taught what can be agreed upon? In such plural ‘patchwork’ societies, an inclusive moral vocabulary is usually adopted as those engaged in character education focus upon ’shared values’:


Despite this diversity, we can identify basic, shared values that allow us to engage in public moral education in a pluralistic society. Indeed, pluralism itself is not possible without agreement on values such as justice, honesty, civility, democratic process, and a respect for truth

(Lickona, 1991, p. 20)


While much may be gained by such an approach we should also consider what is lost.


The connection between the Christian faith and citizenship in western liberal democracies is so central they should not be eschewed in character education. If approaches to character education are exclusively secular this often, ‘obliterates the differences of particular communities and creeds and empties morality of its substance and depth’, and the effort ‘to capitalize on what habitus remains by creating an inclusive moral vocabulary that is shared by all’ (Hunter 2000 p. 225) can exclude important religious perspectives. Glanzer (2003), in a critique of Hunter (2000), has argued that even respected character educators such as Lickona, ‘take an approach that divorces conceptions of virtue from particular traditions’ and claims that while teaching common virtues ‘these approaches avoid narratives for defining, understanding and applying these virtues’ so that these approaches ‘downplay our particularity’ (Glanzer, 2003, p. 300). The argument is that when state education only encourages character education that is ‘divorced from particularity and acceptable to all’ (Glanzer, 2003, p. 294), it deprives children of a comprehensive moral culture. A parallel can perhaps be seen in the national emphasis upon citizenship education in Britain where civic republican political involvement and activity (QCA, 1998, 1999; Crick, 2000, Pike, 2006) is promoted and teaching children are taught to ‘believe in’ liberal democracy rather than in the importance of the values characteristic of character education (Arthur, 2005).


Arguably, when citizenship in the UK or character education in schools in the US is divorced from religious sources, this militates against educators, ‘inculcating their highest moral ideals embodied in their comprehensive visions of the good’ (Glanzer, 2003, p. 294). Indeed, a ‘limited’ approach to character education ‘derived from a particular moral tradition based in the social contract narrative’ fails to provide what is required because liberalism ‘fundamentally does not endorse a particular comprehensive vision of the good for individuals or groups – even through its public education system’ (Glanzer, 2003, p. 293). A question of central importance is this:


How can we reform moral education in the public school system so that it provides moral discipline, moral attachment and comprehensive approaches to character education, but also respects our political desire to show justice to diverse visions of the good and respect moral autonomy? (Glanzer, 2003, p. 300)


This question will be addressed in the present article with reference to recent research documenting the character education of young people in a social priority area. It is worth noting that schools with a Christian ethos are often ‘particularly effective with more socially disadvantaged pupils and, as such, appear to offer much to the common good of society’ (Morris, 2005, p. 311) and yet ‘low income families most in need of healthy and vibrant character education options’ often have ‘anaemic character education’ (Glanzer, 2003, p. 304) inflicted upon them in state schools.




Character Education in a Christian-Ethos School

This article draws upon a case study of character education in a Christian-ethos school in the north of England. Qualitative and quantitative data was collected during the equivalent of three weeks of visits to the case study school. From the qualitative phase of the research (interviews with teachers, focus group work with 14-year-olds and lesson observations carried out over one year) it was clear that the school placed a strong emphasis on core values and character education. Following this qualitative phase, a confidential survey of all 14 year-olds (191 students) and all teachers (101 staff) was administered to gauge the degree to which these views were reflected more widely. The school has around 1200 students between the ages of 11 and 18. When the Head teacher, was asked in an interview whether ‘character’ or ‘academic success’ was the most important priority at the school, without the slightest hesitation he explained:


Character. I’ve said it’s character first and then the rest will come.

If you’ve got character first the rest will come.




When surveyed, 95% of staff agreed, ‘Here whole school values are explicit and the kids know what they are’ but, significantly, 88% of staff thought that ‘in many other schools the whole school values are not as explicit as they are here’. The core values upon which the character education at the school bear a striking resemblance to the ‘essential virtues’ advocated in Character Matters by Lickona (2004):





Essential Virtues (Lickona, 2004)



Core Values of Case Study School


1. Wisdom or Good Judgement


‘how to put the other virtues into practice – when to act, how to act


Wisdom enables us to discern

correctly, to see what is truly

important in life, and to set priorities’


All our work will be characterised by the following values




We know that hard work and the refusal to give up are essential if we are to achieve anything worthwhile.


2. Justice


‘includes so many of the interpersonal virtues – civility, honesty, respect, responsibility and tolerance’ p.8





We can be trusted to be honest and truthful, to say what we mean and to do what we say.



We recognise that having the freedom to express ourselves means we must also accept responsibility for our words, thoughts and actions.


3. Fortitude


to do what is right in the face of difficulty…Courage, resilience, patience, perseverance, endurance, and a healthy self-confidence are all aspects of fortitude’




We aim to do what is right, whatever the cost; we stand up for the weak, whatever the danger; we face our fears and find ways of defeating them.


4. Self-control (temperance)


‘Self-control is the ability to govern ourselves…to control our temper, regulate our sensual appetites and passions…It’s the power to resist temptation’




We recognise that having the freedom to express ourselves means we must also accept responsibility for our words, thoughts and actions.



5. Love ‘selfless love’


‘A whole cluster of important human virtues – empathy, compassion, kindness, generosity, service, loyalty, patriotism…and forgiveness make up the virtue of love’






We care for those who are in difficulty and who are hurting, recognising that the world does not exist for us alone.



6. A Positive Attitude


‘The character strengths of hope, enthusiasm, flexibility, and a sense of humor are all part of a positive attitude’ p. 9



Honourable Purpose


We aim to be positive in everything, doing what is good and aiming to benefit others as well as ourselves.



7. Hard Work


‘hard work includes initiative, diligence, goal-setting, and resourcefulness p.10





We know that hard work and the refusal to give up are essential if we are to achieve anything worthwhile.



8. Integrity


‘being faithful to moral conscience, keeping our word, and standing up for what we believe… to be “whole” so that what we say and do in different situations is consistent... Integrity is … telling the truth to oneself’ p. 10




We can be trusted to be honest and truthful, to say what we mean and to do what we say.


All our work will be characterised by the following values


9. Gratitude


‘Gratitude is often described as the secret of a happy life. It reminds us that we all drink from wells we did not dig. It moves us to count our everyday blessings’



Honourable Purpose


We aim to be positive in everything, doing what is good and aiming to benefit others as well as ourselves.



10. Humility


‘Humility enables us to take responsibility for our faults and failings (rather than blaming someone else), apologize for them, and seek to make amends’ p.11





We seek to do our personal best without bragging and to encourage others to achieve their best without being critical or jealous of their efforts.




We recognise that having the freedom to express ourselves means we must also accept responsibility for our words, thoughts and actions.





[the school’s] core values are central to all areas of its work and contribute very well to the students' good spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Teachers apply [the school’s] rules consistently, which means that students know clearly the difference between right and wrong. Students' social development is excellent and they show high levels of respect towards peers, staff and the school environment. Students readily understand and accept that high expectations extend to all that they do, and while the vast majority accept and conform to these, a small minority find compliance personally challenging. The number of recorded incidents of disruptive behaviour in school has fallen sharply since last year, which has resulted in a significant reduction to the number of exclusions. Overall, students' behaviour is very good. (Ofsted inspection report)


The CEP’s Principle 3 emphasises the proactive nature of character education and notes that, ‘Schools committed to character development look at themselves through a moral lens to assess how virtually everything that goes on in school affects the character of students’. This is a particularly important characteristic of the case study school as character education is pervasive and central to the school’s identity. The CEP’s Principle 4 states that school is a ‘microcosm of a civil, caring, and just society’ so that ‘the daily life of classrooms and all other parts of the school environment (e.g., the corridors, cafeteria, playground, school bus, front office, and teachers' lounge) are imbued with a climate of concern and respect for others’. This is also testified to by Ofsted’s inspection report on the school:


Students feel safe because they believe that teachers listen and respond quickly to any concerns raised. However, a few students and parents indicated that some bullying still occurs, although this is decreasing because [the school] acts quickly to deal with any issues. The vast majority of students enjoy attending [the school] , which is reflected in improved attendance rates over the last year. (Ofsted inspection report)


The CEP’s Principle 5 states that students are given ‘opportunities for moral action’ which is reflected in the responsibilities students have both inside and outside school, in the UK and in countries such as South Africa where they work with AIDS orphans.

It is also encouraging to note the conclusion of Ofsted inspectors that ‘partnerships with parents are improving’ (Ofsted) even in a social priority area where families face considerable economic and social challenges. This is central to the CEP’s Principle 10, which indicates the importance of engaging ‘families and community members as partners in the character-building effort’. In terms defined by the CEP’s Character Education Quality Standards (CEP, 2008), the school provides comprehensive, pervasive and systemic character education.



Christianity and Character Education

Where this school differs from the character education of many public (state) schools in the USA and citizenship education in non-denominational schools in England is that the religious sources of these core values are acknowledged. According to the survey data, the Headteacher and Deputy Headteachers at the case-study school all subscribed to the view that ‘Every individual amongst our student body is created in God’s image’. Lickona notes that ‘we should help students appreciate that every person has intrinsic dignity and value – sacred value, if one believes that we are each created in the image of God’ (Lickona, 2004, p. 140) and this is a powerful belief which supports the expectation that each child, irrespective of social background, can succeed in an area where there has been a history of failure, precisely the context  which the school seeks to serve.



Tutor prayers at the case study school could be a Bible reading and reflection about the day or upon a particular theme as no one is coerced to pray. Yet one teacher told me it seemed to be a better vehicle for stimulating ‘discussions of far more in depth issues’ than the Citizenship lessons she had experienced in a previous school:


Although I am not a practicing Christian myself I enjoy doing tutor prayers every week, I approach my tutor group looking at the moral message, but very much approaching it as a text and looking at textual analysis … tutor prayers trigger off discussions of far more in depth issues … a lot more than the kind of, the lukewarm Citizenship lesson structures that we used to get at my previous school that I think kids saw that as being kind of wishy washy ... I think they saw it as being a bit wishy washy and liberal and had nothing but contempt for them, whereas I think approaching it from the point a view of the Bible passage actually makes it easier to pull the kids into discussion of wider issues



This is in keeping with the position outlined in the school’s prospectus which states: ‘We have a Christian ethos which means that faith and belief are important and we encourage students to think for themselves about the big questions of life’ while acknowledging that ‘traditional Christian views form the starting point for these discussions’. The Headteacher’s inspiration for the core values is unambiguously the life, teaching, example and person of Jesus Christ and, describing a meeting for prospective parents, he explained:


I say to the parents when they come and I put the values up.  “Do you want to send your child here?  These are our values.”  Because they say, “Oh, they’re great, humility, compassion, all good things.”  And I say, “We’re a Christian ethos school.  We find them perfectly in Jesus Christ.  That’s why they’re our values.”



Importantly, while there is broad support for the core values at the school, there is also the freedom for disagreement about the sources of those values. Staff and students endorse and subscribe to the core values but they do not always share the Headteacher’s inspiration for those values. There is, however, a great deal of safety (as well as intellectual honesty) in the perspective of those who see the core values as ‘Christian’ being declared and open rather than hidden. Yet students’ abilities to exercise autonomy and to interpret the declared sources of these values was not infringed as is demonstrated in a group interview when they were asked if they believed their school’s core values were, in some sense, ‘Christian’ and replied:



Yeah but you know like they’re values that a lot of people hold in lots of different religions as well, it’s like it’s not just the Christian values because it’s common sense really about the values that a lot of people hold because it’s right to hold them…. They’re not just Christian values because if you think about it it’s just what a normal everyday person should be like, so you should be accountable to other people and you should be like determined and have courage… whether you are a Christian or whether you aren’t a Christian they’re still very good like values to follow.


When all staff and 191 14-year-olds were surveyed, 99% of staff and 96% of students at the school agreed with the statement ‘Whether you are a Christian or you aren’t, the schools’ Core Values are still very good values to follow’. Although sources of the values may differ, those of various religious or secular persuasions endorse them and value the character education they promote. As one teacher explained:


I think the kids see the values in two different ways, which I think is a really good thing about our values because they do understand.... you know, even the kid that’s like ‘oh here they go on about God again’ even that kid, even that pupil understands why the values we have are good for any human being


Much more needs to be done to support character education in the UK and young people need to be helped to critically engage with the sources of the values underpinning their education. To seek to shape a young person’s character without helping them to understand the sources upon which that education is based fails to model the honesty and integrity characteristic of quality character education.


From a liberal perspective, the opportunity for children and young people to become autonomous adults has a high priority in evaluating education policy and the capacity of Christian-ethos schools to foster critical thinking needs to be considered. In this case, the declared position of the Headteacher, expressed in an environment that explores the ‘big questions of life’, stimulates rather than diminishes autonomy. If an increasingly secular society perpetuates assumptions and beliefs that are secular and humanist in orientation, children need to be aware of alternatives if they are to exercise choice. If secularization in our culture functions to prevent many young people thinking about religious truth claims as a credible basis for character and moral behavior, the perspectives offered at this school at least offer an alternative. Autonomy is often considered to be making one’s own decisions or moral choices independently of tradition or religious influences but young people should be enabled to consider the degree to which they are, in fact, exercising freedom and thinking for themselves. If ‘he who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice’ (John Stuart Mill, 1909) then religious beliefs or secular beliefs that are customary rather than considered, can be dangerous. By respectfully debating truth claims, Christian-ethos schools can promote the autonomy of their students in matters of religion while providing character education that enables them to choose well.


Character education ‘has long relied upon an Aristotelian principle that character is formed in large part through habitual behaviour that eventually becomes internalized into virtues (character)’ (Berkowitz and Bier, 2004, p.80) but this can also be seen as ‘Christian’ behaviour whereby ‘a man who perseveres in doing just actions gets in the end a certain quality of character’ or, to put it in a more robust fashion, ‘Don’t waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did’  (Lewis, 1943, p. 48). Yet, while works are undeniably important, so too is faith. It is on this count that Christian-ethos schools themselves may be wary of character education. There is, after all, a significant difference between being ‘good’ and being a ‘Christian’. The biblical message is that all our righteous acts and demonstrations of good character are like ‘filthy rags’ or a ‘polluted garment’ (Isaiah 64:6). As the Reformers proclaimed, one does not come to Christ not on the basis of one’s works or good character but by faith: ‘by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast’ (Ephesians 2: 8-9). If comprehensive liberals and aggressive secularists have concerns about the relation between the ‘core values’ or ‘essential virtues’ and Christianity, they should be aware that while the life, work, ministry and teaching of Christ may have influenced the the values of many schools, adopting those values cannot, according to New Testament teaching, make one a Christian. Indeed, there are many Christians who would not want children attending Christian-ethos schools to assume they were Christians if they adhered to the ‘core values’ of their school. Equally, combining moral clarity and action can do wonders to aid reflection. C.S. Lewis suggests that if one makes ‘some serious attempt to practise the Christian virtues’ over a six-week period then, ‘one will have discovered some truths about oneself’ (Lewis, 1943, p. 57) and observes that, ‘No one knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good’ (Lewis, 1943, p.58). Character education that encourages children to try to be good can aid reflection but we should not confuse character with Christianity.


I should like to express my thanks to the ESRC/AHRC for funding the research drawn upon here.



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