When Seldon took over as headmaster at Wellington College in 2006, the school was languishing in the league tables—ranking 256th in the Sunday Times A Level table. Last summer, students of Wellington College achieved over 95% As and Bs, taking the college to 21st place in the same tables.

How did they manage it? By establishing five institutional goals and values: powerful leadership, high quality teaching, high expectations of rigour and excellence, strong discipline and order, and finally, mastery of the basics of literacy and numeracy.

Seldon believes these targets should be applied across all state schools in Britain, so that “our static or declining social mobility in Britain will be reversed.”

Seldon argued that academic attainment and character building are as important as each other. “Academic attainment and exam success can never be more than part of the story of the profound moral responsibility of schools to children, parents, society and the nation … good character strengths are a greater predictor of success in university and in life than mere exam passes.”

Seldon explained that critical values—such as how to become a responsible and law-abiding member of a community; how to develop leadership skills; how be a caring parent, wife or husband; how to be a hard-working, punctual and polite employee; how to learn about our own mental, psychological and physical wellbeing and be responsible for our own lives—are taught to the 7% of students who attend independent schools in Britain.

“For those in state schools, it is hit and miss … Schools have suffered woefully from the moral vacuum of the last 25 years, with government after government insisting that the only important objective of schools is good exam grades … Untold damage has been done because of the failure of our politicians to impart a sense of moral purpose,” he said.

In conclusion, Seldon urged governments to prioritise character and values—and to watch exam success follow. Student behaviour, respect for one another, a desire to learn—rather than being forced to learn—will "allow students to probe beneath surface learning to the depths of subjects because they will be more reflective people".

Personal responsibility, distinguishing between good and evil, respect for peers and adults, and the importance of kindness and consideration, are qualities essential for the good of society, and can be taught.

We know that many schools fail to prepare students for the 21st century world, and will not allow them to flourish and prosper in the future. Character education, which challenges and stimulates young people, and develops their curiosity, resilience, responsibility and respect, lies at the heart of what is required.

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About the Speaker

Sir Anthony Seldon is one of Britain’s foremost authorities on Character and Values in Education, and is renowned for introducing wellbeing into British schools. As a contemporary historian, author of over 40 books on history, politics and education together with his leadership of one the country’s top schools, Wellington College, Sir Anthony is well placed to make the case for character and values to be part of society, policy development and education.

He has been a head for 20 years, is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and was recently appointed as a fellow of King’s College London. He has written the inside books on the last four Prime Ministers.

About the Series

The Executive Director's series invites leading thinkers in education to share their ideas on how best to promote the study of character formation and analyse how values are formed.