Talking Head

Headmaster's blog at Newcastle School for Boys

January 30, 2017

A measure of character

Education isn’t just about exam results.  Neither a pupil nor a school can ever be entirely captured in even the most sophisticated performance measures.

Developing young men of excellent character is one of Newcastle School for Boys’ aims.  A worthy or lofty ambition you might think.  Visit the School and you will see it and feel it.  But it’s certainly hard to measure.

We define character in the virtues contained in our character compass with their half-termly focus across the school: community, integrity, resilience, courage, leadership and empathy.

The focus for the first half of this spring term is resilience – a theme I introduced in my Senior School assembly last week and will develop further in the coming weeks.  It links, of course, to the very real concern about the increase in mental illness in young people.

Private school children are tougher than their state educated peers proclaimed The Telegraph recently.

It was in response to the publication of research by leading psychometric test publisher AQR International: Understanding “soft skills’ development at Independent Schools.

The research, commissioned by the Independent Schools Council (ISC), which represents over 1,200 independent schools in the UK and overseas, confirmed ‘pupils at ISC independent schools have good attainment, wellbeing and behaviour and are more resilient, better at dealing with setbacks and more open to learning as a result.’

These findings were derived from the quantitative research undertaken by AQR using a mental toughness model called MTQ48.  9,000 independent school pupils of all ages from 58 schools including Newcastle School for Boys took part.  The results were compared with the dataset of 32,000 state school pupils.

MTQ48 measures mental toughness defined as the ‘mindset that every person adopts in everything they do’.  It is divided into four key strands: control, commitment, challenge and confidence.

We were intrigued by ISC’s invitation last spring to take part in the research that would seek to quantify the value we knew we already added to our boys’ character development. The attraction was the opportunity to establish a measure of some aspects our boys’ development in this area.

The concept of adding academic value was already familiar and important to us.  It too is reflected in our school aims and the data there suggests we do it pretty well at juniors and seniors. Last summer, the value added by our boys and their teachers at A level placed us in the top 5% of the many UK and international schools that subscribe to the well-regarded and robust A level Information System (ALIS) at Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM).

Of course, no single measure can hope to capture entirely the diversity, complexity and influences of the ‘character’ of a single pupil.  Pupils’ lives can never be adequately captured in a few digits.  A shared grade or score doesn’t make two pupils identical nor requiring of exactly the same approaches by their teachers.   In the summer, we hosted a regional training event for ISC and AQR to train our staff – and colleagues from independent schools in Scotland – to understand mental toughness and how it can be developed as well as how to administer the test to our pupils.

Our analysis of the initial results is very encouraging and indicates that Newcastle School for Boys adds significant value to our boys’ soft skills development – particularly their control and commitment – as effectively as it does to their learning in the classroom.

With the right interpretation, informed by skilful professional judgement, the data will also provide a means to help us to evaluate and monitor boys’ future personal development and the School’s approach to maximising it.