Although there is evidence that character / essential life skills in childhood are associated with a range of positive outcomes at school and beyond, much less is known about how these skills can be developed and whether they lead to increased academic attainment.
Few robust studies in the UK have explored the extent to which schools can influence these skills, and their impact on other outcomes. Improved behavioural, social and emotional outcomes do not always translate into improved grades, but schools may well wish to pursue them for their wider benefits irrespective of impacts on attainment.
The evidence in our Toolkit and the EEF’s literature review on non-cognitive skills suggest that character-related approaches can be most effective for improving attainment when they are specifically linked to learning. For example, interventions that focus solely on raising aspirations without clear steps on what children can do to make progress appear to have little positive impact on attainment.
Social and emotional learning programmes appear to be more effective when approaches are embedded into routine educational practices, and supported by professional development and training for staff. Evaluations of programmes such as SEAL and PATHS in English schools suggest that the quality of implementation of these programme, and the degree to which teachers are committed to the approach, appear to be particularly important.
The EEF now has funded trials of 15 projects with a focus on character / essential life skills. Two completed projects provide encouraging initial evidence:
- Changing Mindsets sought to improve academic attainment by supporting pupils to develop a ‘growth mindset’: the theory that intelligence is not a fixed characteristic, but can instead be increased through effort. The independent evaluation found positive impacts on reading and maths scores for Year 5 students, when the approach was delivered through six structured workshops. The method of delivering the approach was important, and light-touch training in the theory of growth mindset did not have an impact.
- Philosophy for Children sought to improve attainment by encouraging children to ask questions, construct arguments, and engage in reasoned discussion. Again, there were positive impacts on reading and maths scores, and some indication that the mechanism for change was improved social and emotional skills.
The EEF has re-granted for two further, larger scale trials of both projects, with the independent evaluation measuring character / essential life skills outcomes in addition to attainment.
Most studies of character interventions have been conducted in the US, and transferring these approaches to the UK can be a challenge. For example, our trial of Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) did not find positive effects on academic attainment, possibly because teachers struggled to implement the programme in full.