Case study: Developing students' character

Written by: Emma Orr | Published:

Assistant headteacher Emma Orr has a specific brief to promote character education at her school. She describes some of their approaches to developing key character skills

The majority of the secondary schools in our borough serve the leafy villages surrounding Bedford – but our catchment area is very different. Just under half of our pupils receive free school meals (FSM). The school we replaced was failing, and many young people and their family members have not had the best experience of education.

Today, Bedford Academy is a school of choice, not a last resort – but when I took up my current role there was still more to do. Our summer 2013 results, while an increase on the previous year, still sat slightly short of the national floor target. Also, the 2013/14 academic year was set to be a tough one as we prepared to move from an upper school to a secondary in September 2014, taking our student numbers to 1,200.

Why character?

Looking at why our students weren’t succeeding, we 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. It could support them to develop the resilience to keep trying and achieve academically. More than that, character could help our students after they left school, as they would develop the qualities that colleges and employers look for.

But how would introducing character education at Bedford Academy actually work?

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. It was impressive, but I knew that if character was to work at Bedford Academy, it would have to be tailored to our school context.

I went back to the research that inspired KIPP’s character approach (see further information), and looked at the 24 traits the research identified. The seven that KIPP had chosen to focus on are, I think, the ones that any school would choose: grit, gratitude, zest, social intelligence, optimism, self-control and curiosity. Those were the traits we chose for Bedford Academy too.

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

Staff buy-in

There was a danger that staff might see character as a gimmick that would take a lot of work but have little impact. We had to make sure that they understood and believed in the approach.

In the summer term of 2013 we had a number of sessions with staff during which they identified what factors led to our students struggling 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 to overcome a stutter (there are clips on YouTube), describing how he showed each of our chosen character traits and was a student we would be proud to have at Bedford Academy. 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 to promote character as a discussion point in lessons, and the school has celebration events throughout the year where students are rewarded for demonstrating Bedford Academy Character.

We also have a large central area at the school in which we have a character display that showcases particular successes. In classrooms we have character posters, and the traits stuck up next to the boards.

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.

To make sure that we use character to the best possible effect we have to really know our students – both as individuals and year groups. To find areas to focus on with different groups we gather information from observation, from the Character Passports of individual students, and from new initiatives like the psychometric testing that we are trialling with year 8.

Our groups with a particular focus vary in size. For example, pockets of students throughout the school requiring anger-management need particular support developing their social intelligence and self-control, while for years 7 and 8 the whole year groups need some help with self-control.

Evolving character

A big part of introducing character to the school has been shared practice. 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 – including the most able.

In a year 7 lesson, we might have something from the GCSE syllabus, and tell the students that. Working towards meeting this challenge boosts their resilience. We are planning to introduce a challenge for each of our seven traits. The next to be introduced is likely to be the Social Intelligence Challenge, through which student champions will work to combat bullying.

Impact and going forward

Character education has already had 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 behaviour. 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 per cent.

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.

In the coming year we would like to work more with our parents and wider community to encourage them to get involved with school life. While parents’ evening attendance is up, there is still a long way to go. Additionally, we would like to grow our social intelligence pool – a peer-mentoring system through which students help other students to interact with others.

And to complement our character work we want to build our Aspirations programme. We are lucky to have a dedicated careers team, and they are working to organise university visits for all our students to encourage them to “dream bigger”.

To help them to follow those dreams, we also want to put in place a Bedford Academy alumni system, a little like that of KIPP schools in the USA. At the moment, almost all students stay within the community or fairly local universities when they leave school and their opportunities can be limited. We want to give students the confidence to go further afield, and part of that is making sure they know that they will always have the support of Bedford Academy.

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 on-going thought and hard work to ensure its continuation and impact.SecEd

  • Emma Orr is assistant principal for inclusion and character at Bedford Academy.

Further reading
For more on the research behind KIPP’s character approach, visit
Future Leaders
Future Leaders is a programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools: Future Leaders is also recruiting for Talented Leaders which places exceptional leaders into headship in areas that need them most:


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