Research suggests that widely held beliefs about the character building nature of sport are wrong, with students who take part in music, choir or drama outside school responding better to moral dilemmas than those who do not

In May this year education secretary Nicky Morgan invested more than £500,000 in a schools project which, despite the best intentions, is doomed to fail. Rugby coaches from premiership clubs were to be drafted into schools to instil character and resilience in disaffected children as part of the government’s “core mission to deliver real social justice”.

No doubt rugby, like many other sports and recreational activities, may build “character” for some children who are well disposed to it and are given enough time to experience success and enjoy participation. However, enjoying rugby doesn’t equate to building character.

The government used rugby to gain publicity for their £3.5 million character grants scheme, which involves diverse organisations such as The Scouts, St John Ambulance, the Church of England, Challenge Network and a number of schools. It also — very handily — diverts attention from criticism of their changes to the curriculum towards a narrower more restricting academic offer.

Twenty-seven schools each received £15,000 to prepare young people for life in modern Britain. Winners included The King’s School, Devon, with a group of four secondary schools on a programme with a particular focus on disadvantaged children. Through four key character traits of resilience, leadership, community and curiosity, the schools will use a range of approaches including mentoring, volunteering, outdoor activity, enrichment and enterprise events.

Schools such as Ormiston Bushfield Academy in Peterborough, place an emphasis on pupils’ roles. Pupils act as reading buddies, mentors, student voice activists, charity leaders and learning ambassadors in primary schools. While others emphasise public speaking, philosophy and ethics lessons theatre groups and army cadets to expose their pupils to a variety of challenges.

By tracing personal development through mastery statements on a continuum from “emerging” through to “excellent”, Bay House School in Gosport is focusing on alternative progress measures, while Honeywood School in Essex has applied “character” education to learning dispositions, with “showcase” reviews assessed through both practical (holistic) and pragmatic (subject-based) interpretations.

Some schools, such as the King’s Leadership Academy in Warrington, have even adopted a whole school values and ethos approach, placing their “seven pillars” of character at the centre of their curriculum as well as using it to inform their day-to-day running of the school.

While early days, the greatest promise seems to be where the character building work is embedded in the everyday life of the school, combining elements of the broad areas outlined above. But before schools get to prescribing what their approach should look like, they should first define for themselves what they understand by “character”; then they can start thinking in detail about how it will be measured.

This remains a work in progress.

At the forefront of the secretary of state’s initiative is The University of Birmingham Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues (jubileecentre.ac.uk). At Frog we are working closely with the University of Birmingham School, which is supported by the centre, to integrate character into every lesson. When asked by the BBC what this might mean headteacher Michael Roden said: “We’re trying to get the children to think, to use what the Greeks called phronesis, or good sense — making, as my mum would say, common-sense decisions.”

The centre’s research found that with the right approach, it is possible for many kinds of school to nurture good character. Researchers looked for the characteristics of schools whose pupils were, on average, best and least able to respond to a series of moral dilemmas. They found that there was no clear link between the type of school, catchment, size or Ofsted designation and being successful in developing character.

The centre also found that widely held beliefs about the character building nature of sport were wrong. Students who took part in music, choir or drama outside school performed better in responding to moral dilemmas than those who did not. Those who reported lots of involvement in sports, including rugby, did no better or perhaps worse. While this leaves us with a mixed picture, if we look beyond sport there are signs that character building can have its place in schools.