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New research into young people’s values

21 November 2006

Young people see their mother as the biggest influence on their values. This is followed by friends and fathers. Siblings, grandparents, extended family and teachers come next, with community and media figures last.

This is one of the many findings of a new enquiry that has been launched into the morality of young people in the 21st Century.  The report promises to raise urgent and important questions for education and schools and the findings will be formally announced in the House of Lords on Tuesday 28th November 2006 at 3.30pm.

The report will show how 16 to 19 year olds in Britain today understand their moral identity; the role education plays in the formation of their moral identity; and the influential factors that shape young people’s characters.

This ground-breaking research was led by Professor James Arthur at Canterbury Christ Church University in conjunction with Dr. Ruth Deakin Crick from the University of Bristol. The project was funded by the John Templeton Foundation. 

Professor Arthur said: “This research was undertaken in answer to a concern about standards of public morality in general and moral education in particular.  The overall aim of the study was to firstly understand how 16-19 year old students understood the concepts of virtues and values and what they perceived to be the main influences on the formation of their own characters.  Secondly, it was to understand how schools can inhibit or facilitate the formation of virtues and values in this 16-19 age group.”

Professor Arthur and his team studied 551 pupils from three different sixth form centres in Bristol which reflected the multicultural and multi-faith background of the city - a further education college, a church school and a community school - between 2004 and 2006.  These sixth form centres were selected for the enquiry because they represented a cross-section of education provision in the UK. Teachers from all three education providers were also interviewed about their relationships with their students.

Extracts from the findings include: students value self expression and self confidence more than modesty and service to others; young people do not feel that the media influences their values, but there is conflicting evidence from the data which suggests that the media and current events have a very important role in student behaviour and values; students expect to vote but are unengaged from politics and from helping in their communities; young people have a sense of the spiritual and the religious, despite their general disengagement from organised religion; and the quality of relationships between teachers and students is of central importance for character formation in schools. 

It was also reported that teachers believed that they should avoid alienating or patronizing students by imposing values upon them; teachers and staff say values are mainly ‘caught’ but can be ‘taught’ by assemblies, tutor time and through role play in lessons, whilst students disagree, saying that assemblies and tutor times do not help them develop their values or spirituality.  (A full report of all the findings will be featured on and ).

Notes to Editor

Background of Research Project

The research team consisted of Professor James Arthur (Canterbury Christ Church University); Dr Ruth Deakin-Crick (University of Bristol); Elspeth Samuel (CCCU); Dr Kenneth Wilson (CCCU); and Professor Bart McGettrick (University of Glasgow).


The enquiry set out to understand how students perceive their moral identity, the contribution of schools to character education and the most powerful influences upon the students’ sense of moral identity.

The empirical research over two years, involved questionnaire, interviews and discussion groups with 551 16-19 years old ‘A’ level students and their teachers in the City of Bristol. The three institutions reflected the mix of sixth form educational provision and the City’s multicultural and multi faith backgrounds.

The findings raise urgent and important questions for education policy, pedagogy, and schools. The report’s authors will use the findings as a basis for further research to take forward the debate about moral identity and to develop strategies which will enhance the ability of schools to support the students’ stated aspirations to realise their own best intentions and contribute to the future well-being of our society.

The enquiry has raised three main areas for debate:

1. How do young people in Britain today understand their moral identity?

i. There is strong, somewhat surprising evidence that young people from across the whole spectrum of faith and culture share common instinctive values and a sense of moral identity. They seem to have a common understanding: character to be a matter of becoming ‘who you are’ in a given situation. They recognise the need and opportunity for ‘improvement’, and want to do so.
ii. Young people’s values appear ‘soft’ in the sense that they say they want to be kind, caring, trustworthy and truthful and they expect the same of others. They are tolerant of diversity and evince a strong sense of social justice and fairness. 
iii. They clearly understand a person’s character to require more than words; good character means living and practising values daily. It will include spiritual awareness, political and community participation. However, the majority do not engage with organised religion, political parties nor do they participate in their local communities. They say they will participate in politics in the future.
iv. Students appear self-referenced. Indeed, the findings suggest that students lack an articulate language with which they could take responsibility for their character formation. For example, there is paucity of reference to terms such as altruism, selflessness, service to others and themselves in relationship to others. The lack of an available language for students to articulate and express their instinctive values raises the concern that their common values may fragment when put under pressure.
2. What role does education play in the formation of their moral identity?

i. There is strong evidence that education’s contribution to a student’s character is the product of the ethos of the whole school. The most important and crucial dimension of this is the quality of personal relationships between students and their teachers. Whilst students report they discuss values frequently in their lessons, they regard it as very important their teachers respect their voice and value them as individuals.
ii. Teachers regard it as crucial that they model their own values in their relationships with students. The best relationships are regarded as those where teachers operate an open door policy, are available to their students, have built up authentic and trusting relationships by following through words with actions. Naturally, the competence to guide students through their examinations is a sine qua non.
iii. The current assessment and evaluation regime provides too little time for students to discuss and develop character or to develop a language with which to become accountable for the development of their values. The majority of students aver that assemblies do not develop their spirituality; tutor time does not help them develop their values and non qualification lessons are not taken seriously.
iv. Most students assume the instrumental approach to their education that is present in the current climate. They report the main aim of school is to pass examinations. In addition to this teachers’ report students are trained to acquire skills and often blind to a teacher’s overall professional ability which has been eroded.
3. What does this research say about the most influential factors that shape student character?

i. The nuclear family appears the most powerful influence on students’ moral identity. In particular students say that the mother is most important factor in developing their values such as being supportive and charitable. Friends are a more important influence than fathers, though when fathers were present, they were cited as modelling strength of belief and determination. The extended family, grandparents, aunts and uncles is less influential for reasons such as geographical distance. However, students perceive their ideal character as a loveable and trustworthy grandparent figure.
ii. Students did not identify members of their local communities as influencing their values.
iii. They maintained that their values were not influenced by organised religion or by politicians. However, there is conflicting evidence concerning the role of the media upon students with students stating it is both an influence upon their values and not an influence.


The enquiry has thrown up surprising findings, which we intend to take further. In keeping with the ethos of our report, we recognise that it does not of itself provide the answer as to how, why and whom should be responsible for assisting our young people to develop their moral identity and fulfil their stated ambition to be responsible members of society. We offer this evidence to provoke a public conversation about the implications of our enquiry. What is the vision for the future of society? How do we offer young people the opportunity to grow in self-understanding and become the responsible members of society they say they wish to be?  What is the language for character formation of our young people in a pluralistic 21st century society?

Therefore, we believe this report has important implications for both public and educational policy and our first step is to provide for further dissemination and organised debate about our findings. This will begin on 18th January at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London. A separate flyer will be available at the launch. 

Claire Robinson, Media Relations Officer,
Canterbury Christ Church University,
01227 782391,

David Cutts, External Relations Assistant,
Canterbury Christ Church University,
01227 782826,

For media enquiries:

Claire Robinson
01227 782391