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Understanding the Moral Values of Young People and the Key Influences on their Character Development

character values transition phase pupils’ perspectives role of teachers

Beng Huat See

Interdisc Edu Psychol/1     26 Aug 2018


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The aim of the paper is to explore young people’s perceptions of moral values and the kind of influences that shape their behaviour. The study is based on the perceptions of 1,997 children in England at the point of transition from primary to secondary school. Data was collected from interviews, questionnaire surveys, and documentary analysis. The findings suggest that young people have a good understanding of moral values. They value trust and honesty above all values. Tolerance and courtesy were less valued. Young people also demonstrate a high level of moral awareness and an understanding of what makes a "good" person. Primary pupils were more likely than secondary pupils to trust their teachers and see them as important moral agents. This is important for children who come from homes where there is a lack of positive role models. If schools and teachers are to play a role in the character development of young people, efforts have to be made to build that trust and respect. And teachers themselves could help by modelling the kind of behaviour they want to see in the young people. Future research could examine how teachers’ behaviour can influence young people’s concept of morality.


Character, values, transition phase, pupils’ perspectives, role of teachers


Over the last two decades the behaviour of our youth as an educational issue has become part of the political agenda in England. When the new Labour government came into office the first White Paper on education, Excellence in Schools (DfEE1, 1997, p. 10), stated that schools and families should take responsibility for the character development of children. Eighty-five percent of those who responded to the Green Paper Schools: Building on Success (DfEE, 2001) supported the provision of ‘education with character’ (DfES, 2001). When riots broke out across the England in 2011, David Cameron, the then Prime Minister, attributed the unrest to the ‘twisted moral code’ of the young people (Cabinet Office, 2011), and put the responsibility on parents and schools to bring about changes in young people’s understanding of morality (Cabinet Office, 2011). The independent report Riots, Communities and Victims Panel, appointed in the aftermath of the riot recommended further study of character education in British schools.

Despite such strong rhetoric, government initiatives to enhance character education remained patchy and marginal (Arthur et al. 2010). A survey of 1,000 teacher trainees suggests that teacher trainees were not adequately equipped with the skills for moral development (Revell & Arthur, 2007). While character education is seen as part of citizenship education, it is not part of the curriculum in teacher education. As in the UK, character education in the US had also been described as unsystematic and uncontrolled (Berkowitz, 2012), and there was also an overwhelming support for character education (Matera, 2001).

In December 2014, the coalition government announced in a £3.5 million education grant to support projects in character education in schools. An additional £1 million was made available to the Education Endowment Foundation to test the most effective ways of developing character in school. A number of trials have been funded to test various programmes aimed at developing the wider outcomes of young people. Examples of these include the Youth United Youth Social Action programme (Gorard & Siddiqui, 2017) and Changing Mindsets (Rienzo et al. 2015).

The recent spike in knife crimes in the streets of major cities in the UK and the increasing incidence of cyber bulling have again caused the government to look to schools for a solution to youth behaviour. In 2017, a report was commissioned by the Department of Education to look at how schools can foster positive character traits in young people (DfE, 2017). The report found that despite the millions of pounds spent on projects to teach character, over half of the teachers surveyed said they did not have the time to develop character traits among pupils because of the pressure of exams (DfE, 2017).

There has been much research conducted, mostly in the US, to develop and enhance character to address problem behaviour among young people (e.g. Flay et al. 2012; Webster-Stratton et al. 2008; Battistich et al. 2004; Battistich, 1997; Dietsch, Bayha & Zheng, 2005; Berkowitz & Bier, 2004). Few studies have actually sought to understand the kind of values young people hold, or their perception of what a good person is and who or what influenced their values.

It is widely acknowledged that at an early age a child’s character and the kind of values they hold are largely shaped by a combination of personal and social interaction with parents, carers, siblings and other relatives (Berkowitz, 1997; Lexmond & Reeves, 2009) and that parents have an important influence. Others, however, have argued that a child’s moral character can be altered or influenced by their interactions with others outside the family (Borba, 2002, Berkowitz, 1997). The influence of peers and school, for example, has also been widely recognised (Borba, 2002). As Durkheim stated:

Contrary to the all too popular notion that moral education falls chiefly within the jurisdiction of the family, I judge that the task of the school in the moral development of the child can and should be of the greatest importance. (Emile Durkheim, 1961, pp.18–19).

In this study we use the term character loosely to refer to a set of behaviour, beliefs and attitudes that is shaped by the kind of values that one holds. These values are either taught or picked up through interactions with others (Campbell & Bond, 1982). Moral character, as conceptualised by Cohen and Morse (2014), is understood to be an individual’s disposition to act, behave, think and feel in ethically and socially acceptable ways. In this study, moral values are conceived as values that are generally associated with ethical behaviour as defined by the Joseph Institute of Ethics (https://web.engr.uky.edu/~jrchee0/CE%20401/Josephson%20EDM/Making_Ethical_Decisions.pdf). These include honesty, loyalty, justice, tolerance, trust, self-control, kindness, generosity, respect and justice or fairness. A good person is therefore taken to mean one who demonstrates these character traits.

The focus of the study is on the transition phase when children move from primary to secondary school. This period, also known as the pre-teen years, is considered pivotal in the character development of young people (Zeedyk et al, 2003). Faced with new circles of pupils and new teachers who may hold values that are significantly different from those they experienced in the primary setting and may be at variance with those that they may possess, can be a source of confusion and frustration (Graham & Hill, 2003, Tobbell, 2003, Thompson, 2004; Weller, 2007). Literature on transition in the last two decades suggest that many behavioural problems associated with early teens such as truancy, non-compliance and inappropriate behaviour can often be attributed to these changes (Hargreaves et al. 1996; Eyers et al. 1992; Measor & Woods, 1984). There is also evidence that the negative effects of transition can have an impact upon sustaining and developing character (Harter, 1985).

In England, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), now known as the DfE (Department for Education), commissioned research into what makes a successful transition (Evangelou et al. 2008). It is because of the importance of this period in the development of a child’s character, and the lack of coherence in the provision of character education in England that we have chosen to focus on young people’s values during transition. It is hoped that understanding young peoples’ perceptions of values and the important influences that shape their moral character will provide clearer strategies to address problem behaviour associated with the transition period.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the purpose of the paper is not to suggest or prescribe a moral code. Here we are trying to capture young people’s perceptions of what they understood to be a good person, what values are important to them and whether these are at variance with common understanding of good behaviour. Moral values are a subjective concept and a person’s understanding of what is moral or not may be different to another person’s. Therefore, children’s understanding of what makes a good person and the values they hold important may not align with those of the adults’. One culture’s core values may be different to another’s. Understanding their perceptions and the factors influencing their behaviour is a first step towards helping young people in their character development. It is not the purpose of this paper to go into a philosophical debate into what are "good" or "right" moral values. This would be a different paper altogether. In any case, the kind of values that emerged from the interviews and questionnaire responses are consonant with the kind of values that Aristotle extolled, and widely recognised as good moral values.


The aim of this paper is to understand the moral values of young people (children aged 10 to 12), the qualities they associate with a good person and what they perceive to be the main influences in the formation of their own character.

This paper will address the following questions:

1. What are pupils’ perceptions of moral values?

a) What qualities do they associate with good people?

b) Do they see themselves as having qualities associated with good people?

2. What do pupils consider as important factors in their character development?

3. To what extent do schools/teachers influence pupils’ values?

The sample was taken from eleven state schools (5 primary and 6 secondary) in the South-east of England. These schools included grammar and non-selective schools located in an area considered to be socioeconomically below the national average. Pupils in the study included 10 and 11 years olds in their final year of primary education, known as Year 6 (Y6) and 11 and 12 years olds in their first year of secondary education, known as Year 7 (Y7).

Data was collected from group interviews with pupils and two questionnaire surveys. This paper reports largely on the findings from the interview data. Responses from the questionnaire survey are used to establish some preliminary information about pupils’ values and their perceptions of good people. Documentary analysis of school prospectuses and Ofsted reports are used to substantiate the findings.

Pupil interviews

The interview schedule (Appendix A) was designed in the light of findings from both literature reviews and an earlier study conducted in Bristol. Pupil interviews were conducted in groups of six in each of the participating primary and secondary schools. In total 11 group interviews involving 106 pupils were conducted across the schools. Parental consent was obtained for those pupils involved "in the interviews". Each group interview consisted of 25-35 minutes of highly structured questions from the researcher and discussion by the students, followed by ten minutes of written reflections by pupils. The schedules are predominantly open–ended questions designed to find out pupils’ understanding of good character, the kind of values they hold, where they see their particular character traits emanating from, and sources that influence their core selves. A couple of these questions were presented as vignettes of hypothetical values-related situations and pupils were asked how they would respond to such dilemmas. To elicit a working definition of what constitutes “good” character, pupils were asked to identify one or two people who they perceive as good people and the characteristics that define them as “good”.

Questionnaire survey

Two self-report questionnaires were developed to collect data concerning pupils’ perceptions of values, their understanding of a “good” person and what they identify as key influences in their character development. These items were created following the development of a conceptual framework of character formation, which were identified from a synthesis of the findings from the focus group discussions, and interviews with teachers. Data on students’ demographic characteristics such as sex and religion was also collected in order to explore the influence of these factors on pupils’ responses.

The first questionnaire (Appendix B) is about pupils’ perceptions of a good person and whether they think they have lived up to the expectations of a good person. It consists of 55 items. The first 7 items collect information on pupils’ demographic background. The other 48 items are Likert scale questions with five responses ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). Items 1 to 21 is a list of character traits to elicit pupils’ perceptions of what they think makes a good person. For example, it is debatable whether attending a place of worship or caring for the environment makes one a good person. It is hoped that answers to these questions would provide an insight into young people’s understanding of a moral person. Here we are not trying to prescribe to young people how they should behave, but to understand why they behave the way they do.

Questions 22 to 42 ask students if they think they have these qualities (e.g. “I am kind and caring”; “I am trustworthy”; “I have a religious faith”). Questions 43 to 48 concern the influences on pupils’ values and character. A question about pupil’s religious faith was included as religion and morality are often believed to be closely related, and may be considered an important factor influencing one’s perceptions of what is “good” and “bad”.

The aim of the second questionnaire (Appendix C) was to find out about the kind of values young people hold important and how the media, schools, teachers and peers have an influence on their character. It consists of 83 items. Examples of questions include: “I am taught how to be a good person by my teachers”; “Teachers ask me my opinion in school”; “TV influences my behaviour”; “My friends influence how I act and behave”.

For this paper, only selected items from the two questionnaires and pupil interviews that pertain to the focus of this paper were used. For example, items relating to citizenship are not discussed in this paper. Items 44a-f of Questionnaire 2 provide the answers to Research Question 1 about the kind of values children hold important. Items 18 to 20 assess pupils’ understanding of values such as justice (item 18) and honesty (items 19 and 20). To get a sense of young people’s moral awareness we asked them about common moral issues they faced in school. These were presented as vignettes in interview items 6 and 7 (Appendix A), which helped to define children’s character traits, such as self-control (item 6 of the interview schedule), compassion and empathy (item 7 of the interview schedule).

Items 1–21 of Questionnaire 1 are about pupils’ perceptions of a good person (Research Question 1). Items 43 to 48 are relevant to Research Question 2. These questions ask children to identify the key influences in their character development. Answers to Research Question 3 are taken from Questionnaire 2, items 2, 7, 24, 25, 55, 56 and 57 and Questionnaire 1, item 46 and 47.

Administration of questionnaires

Questionnaire One was administered to 997 pupils, with a 100% response rate. Table 1 gives a breakdown of the sample by year group and sex. Questionnaire Two was administered to 1,130 pupils in the participating schools, with a response rate of 88.5%. All participants were assured of anonymity and confidentiality. Participants were:

  • Informed of the purpose of the research and the questionnaire;
  • Asked for their permission to participate through informed consent and parental letter;
  • Informed that all information would be treated confidentially and anonymously;
  • Advised of rights to withdraw;
  • Encouraged to complete the questionnaire in their registration period or lesson.

Table 1. Sample by year group and sex

Year GroupMaleNot maleTotal
 Q 1Q 2Q1Q 2Q 1Q 2

Analysis of interview data

All interviews were recorded on digital audio equipment and were then transcribed. The interview data was categorised and synthesised according to the following themes:

  • Pupils’ understanding of what makes a good person
  • Pupils’ reported influences on their behaviour

A descriptive account of the findings was then produced for each of these themes. The responses from these group interviews helped formulate the questionnaire items and also illuminated findings from the questionnaire survey (Morgan, 1988; Knodel, Havanon & Pramaulratana, 1984).

Analysis of survey data

Once the data was collected, a coding sheet was developed and question items were coded and pupils’ responses entered into SPSS. Simple descriptive statistics were performed on the data collected using the SPSS statistical package. Responses were compared by year group using the cross tabs process within SPSS. Where appropriate, data from the group interviews was used to illuminate the survey findings. As the sample was not random but involving the whole cohort of Y6 and Y7 pupils in the participating schools, significant testing was not appropriate. For categorical variables like the kind of values pupils hold important, comparisons were made using odds ratios, that is, how likely are primary school pupils to rate those values as important compared to secondary school pupils. The five-point Likert scale was collapsed to form a binary scale (Agree and Not Agree). Strongly Agree and Agree were combined and recoded as Agree, while Strongly Disagree, Disagree and Neither were combined and recoded as Not Agree. According to Grassi et al. (2007), such recoding would not result in any loss of internal structure while maintaining internal consistency and comparable values as the Likert scales.


Pupils’ perceptions of moral values

To get a sense of pupils’ moral values, we used six items identified by the Joseph Institute of Ethics as those that most people associate with ethical behaviour. Pupils were asked to rate how important these were to them. To these young people values such as Trust and honesty (Table 2) were considered very important, while Courtesy and tolerance were seen as less important (Table 2). In general there was little difference in the views of Y6 and Y7 pupils. However, the younger Y6 pupils were more likely than the older Y7 pupils to report Courtesy as important to them.

Table 2. Values pupils agree was important (%)

ValuesAgreeNot agreeOdds ratios
  Honesty7985 2115.70
           N (Y6) = 109; N (Y7) = 888

We further asked them in interviews to identify characteristics associated with good people. They named 49 different qualities, which were mentioned a total of 190 times across the 11 group interviews. The most frequently mentioned qualities in order of frequency were:

  • helpfulness
  • caring
  • a sense of humour
  • kindness
  • consideration for others
  • loving
  • fairness
  • supportiveness
  • friendliness
  • intelligence

Although pupils generally had a common understanding of what constitutes a good person, there were some differences in the perceptions of primary and secondary pupils. Secondary pupils did not see qualities like having a ‘sense of humour’, ‘being fair’ and ‘determined’ as important in a good person as they did for primary schools pupils. On the other hand, qualities like being considerate, friendly and understanding, which were not mentioned by primary pupils featured in the responses among Year 7 students.

Generally, pupils perceived kind people as those who would ‘give you time’, would be ‘helpful’, ‘put others first’ and are ‘generous’. For example, one pupil said:

Like if they a big packet of sweets, they’d just share them out with people, even people they didn’t like.

They will do things without expecting anything in return. If somebody is upset, they will make them happy again.

Pupils also identified a good person as someone who cares and supports them, is patient, kind and helpful. Excerpts from group interviews:

Like Mrs. D, she helps us, she pushes us and the reason she does that is because she cares. She never gives up on us. When we’ve got football matches, she always supports us. And even when the other team are winning, she still supports us. Also when we’re in a lesson and she’s gone over something 20 million times, she’ll still go over it again to make sure that you’ve understood it.

Johnnie as well, because he’s always helping the little ones. And some people say things and it hurts your feelings, but Johnnie knows what to say and he knows not to hurt your feelings.

Y6 pupils

These responses reflect a sense of moral awareness among young people, and suggest that they were able to identify appropriate qualities associated with good character. The majority of the pupils also believed that they possessed these characteristics. Seventy percent of pupils believed that they were ‘responsible’, ‘friendly’, ‘helpful’ and ‘ welcoming’, while 66% thought of themselves as ‘trustworthy’ and ‘loyal’. Over half (64%) saw themselves as ‘kind’, ‘ caring’ and ‘loving’.

To explore the extent to which pupils shared the qualities they had described as being those of a good person, they were presented with a dilemma. Pupils were asked to choose between going to a local shop to buy milk for a retired neighbour, who had asked them for help, or to go and play with their friends. Pupils’ responses suggest qualities of empathy and compassion. Almost all the pupils said they would help their elderly neighbour. Comments included: ‘a weak older person’, ‘ old people find it hard to move’, ‘imagine it was our parents ’. Some pupils said they would do it out of commitment to their neighbour, others said it was because of the trust that the neighbour had in them. There was no perceptible difference in the range of responses to the scenario between the primary and secondary pupils, although there was a certain level of maturity in some of the answers given by the younger pupils. For example,

It’s only 5 minute’s of your day and it saves another person from being injured.

We’ll just say to our friends we’re going to get some milk for someone. And if they say “Ha ha! You’re not going to do that are you?” and “They’re really old”. And it’s not very kind of them to say that. So I would say, “That’s not very kind,” and “if you think that you’re not my real friend”.

When asked about their motivation for doing good deeds, pupils said:

It makes you feel warm inside . (Y6 pupil)

I feel good because it makes [my father] feel good . (Y6 pupil)

You get to help others . (Y7 pupil)

If you are nice other people will be nice back . (Y7 pupil)

You get a nice feeling that you’ve helped someone . (Y7 pupil)

To understand pupils’ conception of friendship and kindness they were asked how they would react to a hypothetical situation in which their friend’s incessant talking kept them from doing their schoolwork. Here again pupils demonstrated a level of maturity with regards to handling the conflicting situation. While they were aware of the importance of getting schoolwork done, they were also careful not to damage their friendship. Here are some responses from the pupils:

If you are unkind, you won’t have any friends. (Year 7 pupil)

If they are your true friends, you’d probably act kinder. (Year 7 pupil)

I wouldn’t be unkind to them...they are your friends and they are there for you. They are the people who are going to play with you, will look out for you and some people won’t do that for you. (Year 6 pupil)

Many also said they would do it with tact and diplomacy.

When pupils were asked if they identified themselves as a good person, the majority believed that they were good, but there was a general acknowledgement that being good was a matter of choice, and that an individual can choose to be good or not.

For the majority of pupils, the term good was seen within the framework of doing good as opposed to being good. They interpreted being good with doing the things that adults wanted them to do, for example doing homework, tidying a bedroom, not talking in class, not running in the corridor. Pupils’ comments suggested that they perceived being good all the time as the opposite of fun and that such behaviour would annoy friends, which would put them at risk of being excluded from friendship groups. The following comments exemplify this perception:

Yes, I do want to be a good person, but not all the time, I want to have fun with my friends. (Year 7 pupil)

I don’t want a reputation of always being good. (Year 6 pupil) [...] you wouldn’t join in. (Year 6 pupil) [...] you want to be popular. (Year 6 pupil)

A number of pupils perceived certain personal advantages of being good, for example, achieving academically and having more friends:

I do like being a good person and yes I want to be a good person because if I was bad I wouldn’t get good grades in a test. (Year 7 pupil)

[...] if you are unkind you won’t have any friends. (Year 7 pupil)

However, when pupils were asked to consider the qualities they had identified as those belonging to a good person in the negative (e.g. unhelpful, unforgiving, unloving etc.) and to apply them to themselves, they all agreed that they would not like to be that sort of person.

Key influences of children’s behaviour

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development suggests that young people’s sense of morality is constructed through their interactions with others (Kohlberg 1976). Research points to several key intrapersonal factors that increase a child’s risk for behavior problems (Guerra et al. 1995). These risk factors include poor parental supervision and monitoring (Gorman-Smith et al. 1996), association with aggressive peers (Hawkins et al. 2000) and exposure to community violence (Schwartz & Proctor, 2000).

Role models are therefore central to moral development. In this study pupils were asked in the survey to consider who and what had helped them to be a good person and the ways in which they had been helped. Family (parents and carers) was reported as having the most influence on their character development (Tables 3 and 4).

Table 3. Supportive variables that help students understand how to be a good person

The following help me to know how to be a good personPercentage agree (%)
Year 6Year 7
  a) Mother/female carer/guardian 8589
  b) Father/ male carer/guardian7679
  c) Sisters/brothers 5553
  d) Grandparents 7074
  e) Friends6063
  f) Teachers7250
  g) School5751
  h) People on TV3327
  i) Going to my place of worship2730
  j) No one, I know how to be good myself3226
N (Y6) = 148; N (Y7) = 852

Table 4. Supportive variables that help students to act like a good person

The following help me to act like a good personPercentage agree (%)
Year 6Year 7
  a) Mother/female carer/guardian 8286
  b) Father/ male carer/guardian7574
  c) Sisters/brothers 4952
  d) Grandparents 6870
  e) Friends5661
  f) Teachers6651
  g) School5551
  h) People on TV2926
  i) Going to my place of worship2631
  j) No one, I know how to be good myself26 26
N (Y6) = 148; N (Y7) = 852

This is consistent with many earlier studies that suggest a strong influence of parents or parenting styles on character development (Holstein 1976, Walker and Taylor, 1991; Speicher 1994; Borba 2002). According to Berkowitz and Grych (1998), parenting styles have powerful influences on children’s moral reasoning, self-esteem, self-control, compliance, altruism, conscience, empathy and social orientation. Berkowitz (1997) explained that mothers can help develop children’s conscience and moral reasoning by providing a warm and mutually positive basis for interaction.

Pupils explained that it was the love and examples that their primary carers set that helped develop their character. For example, one Y6 pupil said ‘family are kind and loving’, and another suggested that her mother taught her to be good, was ‘always there for her’ and was a good person. Pupils in one secondary school explained that their mothers had a greater influence on them because ‘she builds your confidence ’, ‘she helps with homework’ and she shows ‘a lot of interest ’. One reason for the strong influence of the family is the amount of time pupils spent with them, as some pupils explained:

[…] my parents build my character because I see my parents more than my gran.

[…] the people who influence me the most are my parents because I see them every day and I spend a lot of time with them.

For secondary school pupils ‘friends’ came after ‘family' as the next most influencing factor on their moral development. This concurs with previous research (Layard 2005, Layard Dunn 2009), which highlights the influence of friends on the wellbeing, achievement and identity of pupils particularly during the transitional phase (Tobbell, 2003; Weller, 2007). In group interviews pupils explained how their peers might influence their behaviour. For example:

If your friends are good people that encourage you to be good then you want to be like them to be friends with them . (Year 7 pupil)

[…] if you are hanging around with bad people, it can make you bad. (Year 6 pupil)

My friends are kind and they set a good example to me. But if they were bad I would be bad (Year 6).

Primary school pupils, on the other hand, were more likely than their older peers to rate their teachers as more important than their friends in influencing their behaviour. Responses from some secondary pupils shed insight into why this might be so. They believed that having a single teacher in primary school helped them to build trust in that person. In the secondary school they have more than one teacher and even though they could still trust their teachers they are forced to ‘think’ more for themselves about moral issues. This explains the change in the relationship with the teachers.

Contrary to common perceptions, TV personalities and religion did not exert much influence on pupil’s conception of morality. But interestingly, children also cited the influence of other people around them. For example, one child explained how the people they interacted with can influence their own behaviour:

[...] if you are around with good people you want to be like them so you naturally ‘be’ more of a good person...if you are around with bad people, then I don’t think your instinct would be to be good.

The influence of school and teachers on character development

The school, as a whole, did not appear to have much of an influence on pupils’ character formation. Only half of the pupils reported in the survey that their teachers had helped them to develop their character. However, primary school pupils were more likely than their secondary school counterparts to perceive their teachers as instrumental in their character development (Figure 1). They were also more likely to agree that it was their teachers who helped them to know how to be a good person and how to act like one (Figure 2)

Figure 1. My teacher helps me develop my character

There are many possible reasons for this difference in attitude. Documentary analysis and interviews with teachers suggest that there was a close teacher-pupil relationship in primary schools, but not so in secondary schools. Ofsted report in one school highlighted the good relationships teachers had with their pupils across the school. In another primary school, the headteacher and teaching staff were commended for making themselves easily available for parents to contact, in support of the school’s policy of ‘close contact and cooperation’. This, however, was not evident in the secondary schools.

Primary school teachers were also more likely than secondary school teachers to see themselves as moral agents. A number underlined the importance of role modelling. This is summarised in the following comments by a primary school teacher:

Figure 2.Teachers teach me how to make decisions about moral issues or problems in life

I think the best way I teach pupils in my class is by modelling myself. If I have been a bit snappy the pupils’ behaviour changes immediately, especially those who have poor social skills. I will over model kindness and it has an enormous effect on the pupils, because I am their teacher and they almost subconsciously imitate and take their role from me. And if I am very kind, polite and very considerate … it has an enormous effect on how the pupils react to that.

Documentary analysis suggests that in the primary schools there was a clear emphasis on the teaching of values and character development in the primary school. For example, in School 1 there was a strong emphasis on ‘ effective pastoral care and support and positive school atmosphere’, which was borne out in their 2008 Ofsted inspection report. School 2 strongly focused on pupils’ personal and social development, which was reflected in the school’s twelve Golden Rules. In Schools 4 and 5, pupils were taught values partly through the PHSE programme (The Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) programme), the Golden Curriculum and also through the school’s Golden Rules. In School 5 pupils were also taught good qualities and conduct through the use of ‘circle time’ methodology in class, the school council, a pupil ‘buddying’ system. Assemblies were often based on a story with a moral meaning, which was clarified for the pupils.

In the secondary schools, the focus was on personal responsibility, self-esteem, positive attitude and learning. This is summarised in the ethos of School 7 which states that the aim of the school was to develop ‘ happy, confident and hardworking pupils who display a responsible attitude to their development, have high aspirations and growing independence and possess good self esteem’ . In all the secondary schools surveyed there was a notable emphasis on academic achievement. Teachers tended to view their role in pupils’ values development within the context of the curriculum; that is the extent to which they provided appropriate and challenging work, the way they taught the lesson, or the extent to which they addressed team work or sharing in the ways in which pupils worked together.

The 2017 DfE report (DfE, 2017) found that the character development efforts in schools are focused on developing good citizenship (97%) and academic attainment (84%), and emphasis is placed on character traits such as honesty, integrity and respect for others (94%).

Although schools emphasized character traits like honesty, integrity and respect for others, in practice pupils, particularly those in the secondary schools, found it difficult to trust and respect teachers.

Interviews with pupils suggest that primary school pupils found it easier to trust their teacher since they have mainly one teacher in comparison to secondary pupils who are likely to be taught by multiple teachers. Also, they tend to spend more time with that one teacher in the primary school than they do in the secondary school. They believed that having one teacher in primary school had helped them to build trust in that person – indicating that the time spent in the company of one teacher can be formative. For example, one secondary school pupil said:

You don’t really talk to teachers here. It’s not so easy.

Some commentators believe that this difference in attitude towards teachers is because secondary pupils are at an age when they are no longer restrained from expressing this kind of feeling by a childish reverence towards their teachers (Grisay, 1997; Dubet, 1999).

Whatever the reason, the message is clear; secondary school pupils do not have an entirely positive view of their teachers. Only 65% of secondary school pupils reported that they trusted their teachers compared to 83% for primary school pupils. They were more likely to say that they trust the police more than their teachers (see Figure 3). Could it be that they see the police as a figure of authority and respect, but not their teachers? If schools and teachers are to play a role in the character development of young people, efforts have to be made to build that trust and respect. As La Taille (2006) explained, adults are important references in young people’s construction of a moral sense, mistrust in adults such as teachers may hamper their moral development.

Figure 3. People pupils are more likely to trust

A number of secondary teachers in the interviews agreed that there was a need to develop good relationships based on trust and respect. This Is pivotal in character development for young people. According to Borba (2002), the early adolescent years are when pupils need most guidance in making tough moral choices. For those pupils where such guidance is lacking at home, the role of teachers as secondary carers becomes significant.


There is generally little difference between primary and secondary school pupils’ understanding of moral values. The majority or children valued trust and honesty but not courtesy and tolerance. This perhaps explains the general lack of respect and tolerance for authority among young people. In general, young people show a reasonable level of moral awareness and were able to identify with values generally associated with ethical behaviour. Most believed that they possessed some characteristics of a good person.

The findings also highlight the important influence of family, teachers and peer on character development. Although the influence of parents, especially mothers, on character formation is widely acknowledged, pupils’ explained that it was the amount of time that these significant others spent with them and the examples they set that were important. This has important implications for recent government policy on educating parents as natural moral agents.

The biggest difference between pupils in Y6 and Y7 is their perception of the influence that teachers have on their character development. Primary school pupils were more likely than their secondary school counterparts to trust their teachers and recognise the positive influence their teachers have on their character development. Some possible explanations for this change could be the reduction in the amount of contact time pupils have with individual teachers in the secondary school, the shift in emphasis in the curriculum and the size of the school. For example, in the primary school, pupils had more contact with their form teachers. As a result, there was a closer pupil-teacher relationship. In secondary schools, pupils now interact with a wider range of teachers on a day to day basis. Moreover, being new to the school, pupils have less time to get to know their teachers and to build a rapport with them. In addition, there is also a shift from a more personal, pastoral approach in the primary school to a more instrumental, exam-oriented one in secondary school. Secondary schools tend to be larger in size, thus, fostering detachment. This move from a secure and familiar environment in the primary school to a new environment, with new teachers, new routines and expectations can make it difficult for the adolescents to trust their teachers. This is important as trust is one of two values rated highly by children.

These findings have important implications for schools and education in general and highlight the need for greater communication between primary and secondary schools to ensure continuity and to build trust and respect for teachers. Some suggestions on how this can be achieved include involving primary pupils in local secondary schools’ activities. For example, joint activities such as games, sports (e.g. football matches), science fairs or language weeks could be organised which involve both primary and secondary school pupils. Secondary schools with ‘feeder’ primary schools could work in partnership whereby teachers in the first year of secondary school and those in the last year of primary school could be involved in joint activities.

There could also be greater continuity in the more personal approach to education often found in primary schools by re-emphasising the pastoral care ethos which is prevalent in the primary school and foster closer pupil-teacher relationships. Some studies have suggested that helping children develop a moral identity can enhance their social and academic success (Kohlberg 1976) and build trust and respect in teachers. There is evidence that better and more consistent pupil-teacher relations may have an impact on learning, behaviour and attendance (Sakiz and Woolfolk-Kay 2009; Gorard and See 2011). As some commentators have observed, pupils with the most serious problems in school are those with the poorest relationships with their teachers (Gorard 2007; Boulton et al. 2009).

However, it is equally important that teachers demonstrate the kind of moral behaviour we want to see in our pupils (See and Arthur 2011). One way to do this is by role modelling. As Likona (1983, p.20) put it:

One of the surest ways to help our children turn their moral reasoning into positive moral behaviour is to teach by example. Teaching kids respect by respecting them is certainly one way to teach by example… But teaching by example, goes beyond how we treat children. It has to do with how we treat and talk about others…

It is not enough to have a curriculum for citizenship or moral education if pupils themselves do not experience this kind of behaviour in their interaction with their teachers (Gorard and See 2011). As Gorard (2007) says: ‘Schools, in their structure and organisation, can do more than simply reflect the society we have; they can try to be the precursor of the kind of society that we wish to have.’ As Berkowitz (1997) said: “Effective character education is not adding a program or set of programs to a school. Rather it is a transformation of the culture and life of the school.”

Throughout history, education has been championed by character educators and moral philosophers as a solution to social problems (Damon, 2005). For example, Herbert Spencer said, ‘education has for its object the formation of character’ (Purpel and Ryan, 1976, cited in Huitt, 2004, p. 1). John Locke advocated education as education for character development (Huitt, 2004, p. 1) and Emile Durkheim argued that ‘the task of the school in the moral development of the child can and should be of the greatest importance’ (Durkheim, 1961, pp. 18–19). As Ryan (1993, p. 16) noted, while the development of a child’s character is not the sole responsibility of the school, historically schools have been major players in this arena.

The key message from this study is that schools and teachers can play a part play in the character development of young people (De Vries, 1998; Wynne and Walberg, 1985). Anderson (2000, p. 139) believed that the classroom is where positive character traits could be reinforced, modelled and practised. Character education ‘is a part of school life’ and schools shape character (Doyle, 1997). This is especially so in homes where parents or family members are unable to provide the moral foundation for character development.


We feel that it is important to mention some of the complex issues of data collection and sampling and explain how we have dealt with them to warrant the conclusions we have made.

First, the sample was taken from eleven schools (5 primary and 6 secondary), from one county in South-east England with a predominantly White pupil population. The schools and pupils were not randomly selected. Therefore, we would be tentative in generalising the findings to a wider population.

Second, as we were not able to trace most of the students from Y6 through to Y7 (only 9% of the pupils involved in the first survey took part in the second one), the study can only provide a differentiated snapshot of the experiences of pupils, rather than a truly longitudinal perspective. The discussion is therefore about differences between the two year groups, rather than about change over time, as we are not comparing the same group of students over time. The findings are nevertheless relevant in so far as they show differences in the views of Y6 and Y7 pupils.

Third, the data was primarily based on self-reporting and self-representation. It is possible that some pupils may be more reticent in highlighting their own "goodness", and some may be more honest in reporting than others.

Fourth, we acknowledge that there may be potentially important variables that were not measured and this might lead us to over-emphasise those we do have. However, this is not unusual as it is often not possible to tell in advance what the important variables might be.

Finally, we would like to add that these kinds of problems are to be expected in any real-life research project of this scale and should not compromise the findings.


The study was funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Thanks goes to James Arthur and the authors of the report, Consistency in Values (Arthur et al. 2010)


11DfEE Department for Education and Employment, now known as the Department for Education (DfE)



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