Thank you for that kind introduction. It is a pleasure to be here.
And it is a pleasure to be hosting the Department for Education’s first character symposium, alongside Floreat Education and Lord O’Shaughnessy – pioneers of what excellent character education looks like.
It’s inspiring to see so many people debating this issue so passionately.
I know that Major Tim Peake has tweeted about this symposium all the way from the International Space Station – so that’s definitely a badge of honour!
As the Prime Minister said in his life chances speech just last week, our aim in politics should be: “To give every child the chance to dream big dreams, and the tools – the character, the knowledge and the confidence that will let their potential shine brightly.”
So this government has made it clear that character matters.
And, as many of you will know, the development of character and mental wellbeing are personal priorities of mine.
As a backbench MP I called for a debate on mental health in the main House of Commons chamber for the very first time and was privileged to lead that debate in 2012.
I was the first Secretary of State to give a minister specific responsibility for mental health – a role Sam Gyimah is carrying out with distinction.
And let me thank Edward Timpson, the minister in my department responsible for character, for his considerable work on this – I know you will hear from him later.
Good character is welcomed by schools, by businesses and by parents alike. It impacts both on educational outcomes and life chances, and I have seen first hand the impact it can have.
Just last week I attended an event being held by the Transformation Trust which gives disadvantaged young people the chance to participate in character-building activities which they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
I heard from 2 young women, Camila and Rihanna, both only 18 years old, who were articulate, ambitious and accomplished.
They were the embodiment of the impact character education can have on young people.
For too long, character has been seen as ‘soft’ and ‘a nice thing to do’.
I am pleased to say that the debate is shifting and there is greater awareness than ever before of just how important this is.
I firmly believe character education prepares our young people for life in modern Britain, regardless of their background or where they grew up.
A truly one-nation government cannot accept that only some people deserve the opportunities that will help them to get on in life.
Every single child deserves that chance.
And we’re not promoting character on a whim.
Evidence clearly shows that character matters.
Carole Dweck’s work at Stanford, Angela Duckworth’s work on Character Lab, as well as the evidence collected by the Early Intervention Foundation, all point to success being closely linked with character.
This is evidence showing that developing excellent character traits in young people can help them to realise their true potential.
People often ask what we mean when we talk about character.
For me character traits are those qualities that enhance us as people: persistence, the ability to work with others, to show humility in the joy of success and resilience in the face of failure.
Character is about being self-aware, playing an active role within communities. It’s about selflessness and self-discipline as well as playing a full role in society.
It’s fair to say that’s a long list of traits!
But that goes to the very heart of this debate – there is no one clear definition of character.
There is no one easy list of boxes to tick.
We don’t want to set down rigid guidelines on this because character isn’t a one-size-fits-all concept.
It isn’t just one thing.
It’s a combination of the traits that set people apart so they can achieve their dreams.
Business leaders – big and small – tell us time and time again that character is a key component to success.
And we welcome a diverse approach to teaching character.
Our reforms over the last 6 years in education have been about liberating schools to innovate and have the freedom to deliver what really works.
We want schools to choose how best to deliver character education in ways that suit their pupils, their teachers and their communities.
We’ve heard this morning from Janet, and the inspiring work done here in Floreat to instil these traits in their pupils.
We’ve also heard from Ali about the difference the ReachOut mentoring programme has had on his life, and from Danielle – who spoke about the determination that has helped her achieve her goals both academically and in sport.
One of the other myths I’m keen to dispel is that character education, and academic attainment are mutually exclusive. Far from it.
For me, they are 2 sides of the same coin.
Consider for a moment the student who reads aloud for the first time and gets tongue tied – will they rush to do it again without encouragement?
What about another who is asked to recite times tables in front of their class and gets stuck – will they fall over themselves to repeat the exercise?
But with character comes the confidence and determination not to be beaten.
It’s that attitude that says “dust yourself off and try again”.
We know that some of the best schools are already prioritising good character education.
Whenever I go to visit schools – and I’ve visited my fair share – I always make a point of asking what they do to promote character, mental health and wellbeing.
And at the Department for Education my officials talk to those schools doing it well – to understand the key to their success. And the one thing I’ve heard over and over again is that the best schools embed character in everything they do – from their ethos, to their curriculum, to the extra-curricular activities they offer.
Oakthorpe Primary School in Derbyshire has developed an ethos that’s focused around reciprocity, reflection, resourcefulness and resilience.
Haywood Academy in Stoke-on-Trent offers a range of character-building activities through motivational speakers, army cadet units and theatre programmes.
I have had the pleasure of visiting the Birmingham University Free School where character education runs through everything they do, as well the Goldbeaters Primary School in London, where we launched the On the Front Foot programme with elite rugby coaches.
And also Redhill School in Stourbridge where students are encouraged to play a positive role in the life of the school and the wider community through fundraising, work experience and sports.
Pupils were invited to speak at the Conservative Party Conference and talk about why character education matters to them – and let me tell you, they received one of the biggest standing ovations of the day.
I want every single pupil to benefit from that kind of character education.
That’s why we are building the evidence base so we can develop the best approaches and make sure all schools have access to this information.
That’s why we will provide an online digital platform where teachers can share best practice about character education, evaluate new ideas and find online professional development materials – as well as sharing their own data to build a proper evidence base.
And we will look to the Character Awards as a gold standard as to what works in character education.
Today is a celebration of the excellent work already being done. To those schools whose efforts are to be applauded – thank you.
But also to the businesses who are building lasting partnerships with schools and doing their bit to further the building of character in our young people – thank you, too.
I think it’s vitally important that businesses take a role here because the character traits we instil in young people should reflect the type of workforce our modern economy wants and needs.
That includes companies like Barclays, which has developed a Life Skills programme to develop the skills young people need to increase employability, and British Gas, which is supporting the fantastic Duke of Edinburgh scheme.
We have sought, like no government before us, to bring business people into the education system.
That’s why we now have businesses sponsoring schools, becoming governors and offering work experience.
We want this relationship between business and education to continue to go from strength to strength.
That is why we will be launching, as the Prime Minister set out, a new business mentoring programme, led by the Careers and Enterprise Company.
I know their chief executive, Claudia Harris, is here today and will be leading the conversation on how we can make sure all young people develop the skills they need to thrive in the workplace.
And that’s just one of the many conversations happening today.
We want to give you the opportunity to influence our thinking on character and, ultimately, our policies.
So we’ll be asking for your views on how we can work with voluntary and charitable sector organisations to really expand this agenda.
And there are plenty of avenues for our young people to go down in the pursuit of character building.
For example, the National Citizen Service, which gives children the chance to benefit from character education no matter their background, and no matter where in the country they live.
We want every child to be able to access this, and that’s why the Prime Minister announced we’ll be expanding funding to the programme by more than a billion pounds so that 60% of 16 and 17 year olds will be able to take part.
We are keen to work with as many partners as possible and make sure that schools can access the best evidence possible.
Because, as I have said, I want excellent character education to be the norm across schools – so that every single child in every single school knows that they are getting the education they deserve and so that when they leave school, they are truly prepared for the next steps they take.
I hope you enjoy the rest of your afternoon and I look forward to seeing how we can work together to put character education to the top of the agenda and make sure it benefits all young people.
Every single child deserves the best education possible, and we owe it to children everywhere to make sure that character is at the heart of that.