Character education

Dec. 10, 2015
Emma Orr

Emma Orr

Assistant Principal for Inclusion and Character, Bedford Academy

On the tenth day of practice... Implementing character education to help students in all aspects of school and later life.

Why character?

Just under half of our pupils receive free school meals. Many young people and their family members have not had the best experience of education. Our summer 2013 results, while an increase on the previous year, still sat slightly short of the National Floor Target and were a disappointment for the staff body and many students.

Looking at why our students weren’t succeeding, I realised that they give up too easily – partly because many feel they have been given up on. Many students were also being distracted from school, and in some cases even dropping out, because of influences in the wider community.

I believed that a focus on character could help students to develop the self-control and emotional intelligence to choose a different path, and the resilience to keep trying and achieve academically. Plus we know that colleges and employers look for more than grades, but character traits too.

Making character work for us

I had the opportunity to spend five days in KIPP New York City school as part of the Future Leaders programme. There, I saw how they worked on character and integrated it into all aspects of the school. I knew that if character was to work at Bedford Academy, it would have to be tailored to our school context.

We came up with our own definitions for the seven character traits KIPP uses, focusing on giving students examples of how they can show each one. It was important that language was uncomplicated and that character could be explained to and by students in all year groups.

"Looking at why our students weren’t succeeding, I realised that they give up too easily – partly because many feel they have been given up on."

Staff buy-in

It wouldn’t matter how good the concept of Bedford Academy character was without the support of the staff.

In the summer term of 2013 we had a number of sessions with staff during which they identified what makes our students struggle in school. The areas they identified were the ones that I had thought of when I was considering our approach to character. After they had identified these, I then introduced character as a possible solution to some of these problems. As staff had identified the areas to work on, they were supportive of character from the outset.

To ensure that this was sustainable, time was given during training days and after school meetings throughout the year to introduce each new element of our character approach.

Introducing character to students

All students attended an assembly to introduce them to Character. We chose to focus our first assembly around the story of the boy on Educating Yorkshire who had and overcame a stutter, describing how he showed each of our chosen character traits. Since then every assembly has been tied to a character trait; for example our Valentine’s assembly was tied to social intelligence through discussing how the day might make different people feel.

But character isn’t limited to assemblies; it permeates every aspect of school life. Students bring a Character Passport to every lesson, which the teacher signs when they show a particular trait. This is used as a reward scheme, and the school has celebration events throughout the year.

In classrooms we have the traits stuck up next to the board. Teachers have been really proactive in finding ways to work character into their curriculum, and every lesson is now tied to a particular trait – for example, a science teacher might discuss how an inventor who took years perfecting their invention showed grit.

"Character isn't limited to assemblies; it permeates every aspect of school life."

To find areas to focus on with different groups in the school we gather information from observation, from the Character Passports of individual students and from new initiatives like the psychometric testing that we are trialing with Year 8. This allows us to use character to the best possible effect; for example, pockets of students throughout the school requiring anger management need particular support developing their social intelligence and self-control, while the whole of Year 7 and 8 need some help with self-control.

Evolving character and new initiatives

Our approach isn’t to introduce practice from the top – practice is constantly evolving with input from all our staff. We have divided our staff into villages in which they have meetings and share practice. Each village has a Character Champion. When we do want to introduce a new initiative, we share it with the Character Champion and they work with their village to implement it.

For example, The Grit Challenge is a whole-school initiative to ensure that in every lesson every child has something that challenges them. Working towards meeting this challenge boosts all students’ resilience. We are planning to introduce a challenge for each of our seven traits. The next to be introduced is likely to the Social Intelligence Challenge, through which student champions will work to combat bullying.


Character education has already made a big impact at Bedford Academy. One of our greatest achievements has been to give students the language they need to understand feedback and talk about their behavior. As a result, the number of behaviour incidents has dropped, meaning that we now have very few fixed term or permanent exclusions. In addition, our attendance has increased from 93% to 95.6% in under 12 months. Through work on character, we’re giving our students what they need to have a fair shot in future.

In fact, many are already having chances they might not have without character education. In previous years, far too many students were not going on to further education or training and would have been classified as NEET. Of our Year 11 who left in July, who experienced one year of character education, all are in education, training, or work.

Character education isn’t a quick fix for all of a school’s problems. For it to make a difference it must reach into all aspects of school life. It must have the support of students, staff and school leaders alike, and it requires ongoing thought and hard work to ensure its continuation and impact. And yet, as I hope I’ve shown, it’s worth it.

Senior leaders share practice within the Future Leaders network 365 days a year. Click here to find out more and apply for the Future Leaders programme.

This blog is part of our 12 Days of Practice series. Every day from 1 to 12 December 2015 we will publish one blog featuring a member of the Future Leaders network sharing great practice.

This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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