What Research says about Character Education in New Zealand Schools

John Heenan

In the early 1990’s the New Zealand Foundation for Character Education Inc. recognised that something had gone wrong at the heart of New Zealand society. Since the 1960’s there had been a 400% increase in violent crime, a quadrupling of the teenage suicide rate, an extraordinary rise in sexual crimes and child abuse and an astronomical increase in school suspensions.

The New Zealand Foundation for Character Education, a non-profit organization without religious or political affiliations, observed that while hundreds of millions of dollars had been invested in intervention programmes and prevention strategies few were able to demonstrate any lasting effect.

Indeed, Ministry of Education figures provided in answers to 2004 Parliamentary Questions revealed that despite the expenditure of millions, at least from the primary schools’ perspective, there has been no improvement.

Since 2000 primary schools suspensions and stand downs increased 31%, alcohol consumption 25%, physical assaults on staff 40%, assaults on other students 33%, sexual misconduct 21% and sexual harassment 83%.

These are not teenagers or even intermediate school students but eight, nine and ten year olds.

Of the 2,560 removals from primary school in 2003, 658 (13.8 %*) were for continual disobedience, 729 (33.3 %*) for physical assault on students, 147 (40 %*) for assaults on staff, 91 (37 %*) for verbal assaults on students and 310 (55.6 %*) for verbal assaults on staff.

* The percentage increase in each category from 2000 to 2003.

The Foundation for Character Education, guided by the experience of the past rather than the theoretical constructions of the present, understands that most of the problems facing New Zealand communities and therefore schools are due to deficits of character.

The simple truth is that character determines behaviour just as behaviour demonstrates character.

While we New Zealanders can be justly proud of many of our achievements the reality is that over recent decades we have not been replenishing those attributes of character that build a just, caring and civil society.

The New Zealand Foundation for Character Education sought to address the situation through the development of the Cornerstone Values approach to character education along with supporting resources.

Character education is the process that develops character in individuals and helps young adults become good people and good citizens.

Dozens of New Zealand schools are using the Cornerstone Values approach to character education and transforming their school culture and students’ behaviour.

The Foundation for Character Education has undertaken two significant research projects.

Parent survey

The first research project was administered and analysed the Southern Institute of Technology in Invercargill.

The purpose of that study was to gather quantitative information from parents concerning:

The research project was carried out in three suburban schools - a decile 9 contributing school, a decile 2 full primary school, a decile 3 Year 7 – Year 13 college and decile 7 rural secondary school.

The results showed a high degree of similarity between the four institutions in all four categories.

The parent survey has been repeated in schools throughout New Zealand with similar results.

Character education in New Zealand schools survey

In October 2004 the New Zealand Foundation for Character Education, in association with Dr. Gael McDonald, Professor of Business Ethics at Auckland Unitec, undertook a research into the effectiveness of character education in New Zealand schools.

The report analyses the perceptions of school principals associated with the introduction of character education in their schools. The participating schools were divided into two groups.

The report concluded that schools that have had character education as part of their curriculum for over two years, show notable improvements in the school learning environment. These improvements include:

Principals reported a marked improvement the eight values taught in the Cornerstone values approach to character education. Those values are: honesty and truthfulness, kindness, consideration and concern for others, compassion, obedience, responsibility, respect and duty.

With respect to relationships, the improvements noticed by principals were:

The schools also noticed a significant improvement in student behaviour, which was reflected by:

Discipline within the school also showed an improvement where students were concerned to be:

There has been a notable improvement in schools as caring communities. The following comments were received:

There was significant improvement in staff stability, where notable enhancement has been the result of:

Teachers readily admit to the advantages and satisfaction of teaching in a school with overt, proactive, specific character education


These two reports show that parents have a strong desire for the restoration of character education to its historical place at the centre of the school curriculum and that effective character education improves school environments and therefore the effectiveness of both teaching and learning.

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