By ‘Character’, we mean a set of attitudes, skills and behaviours – such as self-control, confidence, social skills, motivation, and resilience – that are thought to underpin success in school and beyond. These are also referred to as ‘social and emotional skills’, ‘non-cognitive skills’ or ‘essential life skills’. They include the ability to respond to setbacks, work well with others, build relationships, manage emotions, and cope with difficult situations. There is growing evidence that these skills are important to children’s later outcomes.
These approaches may happen during or outside of normal school hours and may seek to pursue academic goals through non-traditional means (e.g., improving maths by playing chess); develop children’s character(e.g., their motivation or resilience); or pursue wider goals because these are held to be important.
At the EEF, we think enriching education has intrinsic benefits (sometimes referred to as “arts for arts’ sake”). We think all children, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, deserve a well-rounded, culturally rich, education.
However, many go beyond this and argue that enrichment approaches can directly improve pupils’ attainment and it is this link that EEF is particularly interested in.
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, or perhaps may translate into improved academic attainment only in the longer term , 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. One completed project provides 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.
The EEF has re-granted for two further, larger scale trials of this project, 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.
The overall impact of enrichment activities on academic achievement tends to be positive, but small.
Of course, the activities may have intrinsic or other related benefits. There is moderate evidence that outdoor adventure learning can have a positive impact on attainment.
Conversely, the evidence suggests that approaches focusing solely on pupils’ aspirations are unlikely to improve attainment.
Given the complex nature, and limited evidence of impact on attainment of enrichment activities, it is important to think carefully about what you are intending to achieve. It is also important to consider carefully whether such activities should replace curriculum-linked activities, as this might have a negative impact on attainment.
- Developing a behavioural approach to knowledge mobilisation: Reflections for the What Works Network: In this What Works Network Strategic Fund project, we aimed to develop and pilot an approach to mobilising research evidence that was informed by the behavioural needs of users. It was based on the premise that by understanding the current state of practice, in addition to the current state of the evidence base, What Works centres could better address the gaps between the two. It focused on mobilising a joint piece of evidence-based guidance from the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) on social and emotional learning (SEL).
- PSHE Association guidance on teaching about mental health and emotional wellbeing through PSHE education. Lesson topics include teaching children how to discuss their anxieties and develop coping strategies.
- SPECTRUM: an online database of measures of non-academic skills: One of the challenges in this field is how to define and measure various aspects of social and emotional development. To help address this, the University of Manchester completed a systematic review of concepts and measures in this area.The linked resources include: an online database of measures assessing the quality of measures in 7 domains; a guidance document for selecting, using and interpreting measures; and a conceptual mapping exercise to explain how the domains were selected.
- The Early Intervention Foundation’s Guidebook provides evidence reviews on a large number of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programmes. The Early Intervention Foundation has also conducted a review identifying the links between skills in childhood and long-term outcomes based on UK cohort studies.
- The impact of non-cognitive skills on outcomes for young people
- Building social and emotional learning into the classroom
- EEF has published two guidance report related to character and essential life skills – Improving Behaviour in Schools and Improving Social and Emotional Learning in Primary Schools.
- The evidence from the Teaching and Learning Toolkit indicates that both sports and arts participation can have small, but positive, impacts on attainment. However, the quality of the existing evidence in this area is low, as indicated by a literature review on arts education the EEF published in 2016. Following this, the EEF and the RSA have jointly launched a Cultural Learning initiative to test the impact of a range of high-potential projects on attainment, as well as a range of essential skills.
- Careers education is important in giving young people the right advice to make to make well-informed, relevant choices and plans for their future. The EEF published in 2016 a literature review on careers education (supported with a grant from the Bank of America Merrill Lynch). The review focused on three kinds of outcomes: educational; economic and employment; and social outcomes. It identified a number of characteristics of good careers education, but also highlighted that the quality of the existing evidence is low. The EEF, in partnership with the Careers and Enterprise Company and supported again by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, is funding a number of high-potential projects to help build the evidence base.
Improving Behaviour in Schools