14/02/2014 06:03 GMT | Updated 15/04/2014 06:59 BST

The Building Blocks of Character - Should Schools Be the Builder?

The shadow home secretary delivered a speech this in which he said that character can and should be taught in schools, to prepare young people for the future. His announcement follows similar findings by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility, whose report concluded that schools should focus as much on developing the 'soft skills' of our young people as much as academic achievement.

Having worked in this area for many years, it is clear to me that a large part of the benefit of school attendance is what you learn outside the classroom, and the interactions with your peers, teachers and other staff. For some children, it could be the first time they interact with an adult beyond their immediate family.

In this context, some character education is inevitable, but to what extent should teachers, schools and the wider teaching communities be proactively sharing and teaching values to our young people? And how can this be achieved without stepping on the toes of parents and guardians who might not share those same values or appreciate overt input into this area of a child's development?

As society changes, the school is, more than ever, expected to be more than a 9am-4pm activity to teach reading and writing. Schools are increasingly seen as a venue for the wider community, a hub, and as a place to keep our children safe and occupied from breakfast time until their parents finish work. The school plays the role of surrogate parent in so many other areas of a child's life, but is it right that this extends into the values and personality of the children as well? Or is that overstepping the mark?

The fact is that the school environment has always been a place to acquire social skills. Children can't do anything but learn about the world beyond their family during their time in the playground, sometimes with disastrous consequences. It is surely right, therefore, that schools take the opportunity to exert a positive influence on our young people, helping them to develop life skills such as fairness, self-control, good judgement and staying power that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

This area of the educational sector is not without controversy. One person's character-building can be seen as another's indoctrination. But there is a wider responsibility, a natural and moral responsibility that falls outside of any educator's job description, to be a good role model. Whether it is done deliberately or not, we already do teach our young people how to behave. It seems entirely sensible to me to take a more active, considered and purposeful approach to developing young people's characters, especially since some children will not be getting this at home.

Some might say that schools should focus on educational achievement and leave character to families and other influences. In reality, the two cannot be so easily separated. Our results, and an increasing body of academic evidence, consistently show that those young people involved in our mentoring programme also do better in exams, and are more likely to go on to further education, training or employment. From that perspective, building character is absolutely central to the job schools are there to do.

ReachOut will be exploring the role of character education in schools at a conference in Manchester on Friday.