'Better people make better students': Best-selling book reveals building character is best way to nurture educational success

Hilary Wilce explains the importance of teaching pupils to be brave, resilient – and kind.

Character matters. In fact it matters more than anything else when it comes to doing well in school – and life. Yet parents and schools are actively preventing children developing their inner resources, either by being too hands-off and neglectful, or by pressurising them to do well and never allowing them to fail.

This is the message of an important new education book that has been topping the best-seller charts in the US and has now been published in the UK.

The book has been setting the cat among the parental pigeons by pointing out that over-assiduous parenting is associated with rising rates of anxiety, depression and failure. But its main concern is with poor children. It looks at why so many educational interventions fail to help disadvantaged students do better, and demonstrates that it is things like perseverance, motivation and determination that ultimately help children succeed.

This old-fashioned message would have been familiar to Aristotle and Kipling but appears to have vanished from the modern world, where the idea of "character training" seems like something from the sepia-tinted past.

But, as this book shows, character is badly in need of a comeback, and some pioneering schools in New York are already starting to put it at the heart of their curriculum.

It's a timely and essential message, yet last summer, when the book was first published, it had me grinding my teeth in fury – not because I disagreed with its thesis but because I was deep into researching what seemed at first glance to be the same subject.

The American book was called Why Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. The working title of my book was Backbone: What Children Need, Aren't Getting and How to Give it Back to Them (long, explanatory titles being all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic). My book was based on what I'd seen in thousands of nurseries, classrooms and lecture halls over a working life as an education writer, as well as my more recent experiences as a personal-development coach. It also looked at the growing evidence that children's characters are changing – and not in a way that bodes well for their adult lives.

But when I got over myself and settled down to read Why Children Succeed, I realised we were approaching the same important territory from different angles. Paul Tough, author of the American book, is a best-selling social-affairs reporter who has written a brilliantly readable account of the growing evidence that inner resources count more than any amount of extra teaching support or after-school programmes when it comes to overcoming educational disadvantage.

Tough draws on neuroscience, economics, psychology and child development to show how qualities such as self-mastery and optimism are what make children succeed and persevere, and how, in the light of this, good parenting, supportive mentoring and thoughtful, character-based schooling can make all the difference.

It's a vivid and persuasive social polemic, rooted in real children's lives, that brings the schools of urban America leaping off the page – and should be forced reading for Michael Gove and his merry band of free-schoolers, who, having filched the idea of charter and KIPP schools from the US, now need to look West again to see how fiddling with school structures can never, by itself, help pupils do better.

My book, by contrast, is being written specifically for parents to show in detail what strength of character consists of, and all the many ways it can be developed in children. (How I wish I'd known this when my own children were growing up!) It identifies six key values that, when knitted together, give a person deep-rooted focus, resilience and integrity, and suggests an overall outline for encouraging children from toddlers to teens to grow the "backbone" of these qualities.

On the way, it looks at the research from both the US and UK showing how children are becoming more self-absorbed, less thoughtful about others, and less able to deal with problems, setbacks and difficulties, and outlines how these changes are in turn making them less equipped to learn well, think deeply, work with others and bounce back from disappointments. It looks at the British school programmes that are working to help their pupils develop character, but points out that nothing has more influence than the home environment and the quality of the pre-school years.

All this sprang out of the slow but growing unease I felt as I spent time in schools, observing children's daily lives. As a journalist, I was usually there to write about some so-called "development" in education – a new building, a revamped curriculum, or inventive method of teaching – yet it increasingly seemed to me that the behaviour and attitudes of pupils were too often sabotaging the very things designed to help them. And not, alas, in any exhilaratingly rebellious way.

Rather, children seemed distracted, disorganised and disengaged, or else worryingly devoted to getting things "right". And when I started to ask heads and teachers about this, I released a tsunami of anxiety about the everyday behaviour they were seeing in school. Many children, they said, now appeared more anxious, more impulsive, less focused, more heedless of others, and more dependent on other people to do things for them than they had been in the past.

A nursery teacher said each new intake seemed less willing to share, listen, or even hang their own coats on their own pegs. A prep-school teacher complained about the staggering sense of entitlement many pupils now demonstrated – if he gave them poor marks for a piece of work, they felt it was never because they could have done better, but only because he was "picking on" them. (And often, he said, their parents agreed.) A middle-school teacher described how pupils now seemed to think that "losing it", even to the extent of throwing chairs around the room, was normal behaviour.

Meanwhile, universities and colleges were raising the alarm about how today's "satnav" students now seemed less able to think for themselves or manage their lives. A toxic combination of teaching to the test at school and parents hovering over their lives at home, was starting to mean that even those headed for the most prestigious universities in the world were proving to be as helpless as babies when they first found themselves fending for themselves.

All this matters desperately because in a competitive and fast-moving world, tomorrow's adults will have to draw deeply on their personal resources to learn new things and navigate life's constant changes.

I already see this daily in my work as a personal-development coach. Academic attainments still matter, but degrees and postgraduate qualifications are now two a penny, and it's what's inside the individual that ultimately shapes careers and lives.

Recently, for example, I found myself coaching two business-school students, both in mid-career, both wrestling with team working and presentation skills. Yet it was immediately clear that while one of these clients – good-humoured, honest, receptive – was up for wringing every last drop of value possible from his allocated coaching hours, the other – mired in resentments, and with his mind firmly shut to new learning – was going to struggle not to waste his precious coaching time trudging round and round the rut of his difficulties. It isn't hard to guess which one first bagged the kind of senior role they were both actively looking for.

A good life demands openness, courage, resilience, honesty, kindness and persistence. This is the true spine of success, without which we are all jellyfish.

And since no one wants their child to be a jellyfish, our prime job as parents – and teachers – has to be to help our children build the backbone they need to make the most of their lives.

'How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character' by Paul Tough (Random House, £12.99)

Hilary Wilce is an education writer and personal-development coach hilarywilce.com; hilarywilce coaching.com

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