Character education at the heart of a high-performing school

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Aiming high: A visit from a bird of prey as part of Ryburn Valley High School's ID lessons, which encourage a growth mindset, skills development and resilience (all images supplied)

Ryburn Valley High School was one of the first in the country to be awarded the Character Education Kitemark Plus. Emma Lee-Potter finds out about how character has been placed at the heart of this high-performing school

David Lord had a tear in his eye as he read the letter from the Association for Character Education.

His school, Ryburn Valley High School in Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire, had just been awarded the prestigious Character Education Kitemark Plus in recognition of its best practice in developing good character in its students. It was only the third such award to be given in the country.

“It vindicated absolutely everything we’ve been doing,” said Mr Lord, who is chief executive headteacher at Ryburn Valley. “It was a real pat on the back and touched me more than anything that somebody else had come in and recognised the outstanding work that our staff and pupils have been doing.”

Gary Lewis, chair of the Association for Character Education, was glowing in his praise for the 1,600-pupil school.

“From the outset, it was clear to the assessors that your passion for character development linked with high-quality pastoral care was infectious and it was equally obvious that your very effective group of school leaders at several levels understood and embraced your drive and commitment,” he wrote.

Ryburn Valley, which has a mixed range of students from different backgrounds, high numbers with SEN and 23 per cent Pupil Premium, prides itself on developing the character of its pupils.

Television viewers will be able to see the school’s work for themselves this autumn when the new series of Our School is screened on CBBC. All 22 episodes in the series were filmed at Ryburn Valley and follow the lives of the staff and year 7 and 8 pupils during the course of a term.

Broad education: Pupils at Ryburn Valley High School celebrate the Character Education Kitemark Plus, awarded by the Association for Character Education

Mr Lord has been head at Ryburn Valley for seven years and focused on character education right from the start. Far from being a new phenomenon, character education dates back to the time of the Ancient Greeks, when Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and polymath, expressed an interest in teaching children to be “good human beings”.

From the 1960s onwards UK schools focused less on the issue but in recent years schools have realised that the qualities which help students to become well-rounded individuals who make a positive contribution to society can be learned and taught.

“The idea of character education resonated with me straight away,” said Mr Lord. “The last few years of education have been very results-driven and generally, and you could argue quite rightly, schools that have been deemed to be outstanding are those that have got very high Progress 8 figures.

“We are an academically rigorous, high-performing school too, but that’s because character education and excellence permeate through everything we do – not because we have purely developed a curriculum to maximise outcomes.”

Mr Lord created a team of senior leaders who place the development of character and personal confidence at the heart of the school’s curricular and co-curricular activities.

Assistant head Triestina Bozzo and PE teacher Ryan Duffy have been involved from the start and PSHE coordinators Laura Robinson and Sarah Attah came on board to launch character education throughout the curriculum.

“We’ve always been interested in students as individuals – and preparing them for the real world alongside academic success,” said Ms Bozzo, who teaches drama and is responsible for careers, character education and student leadership.

The school restructured its PSHE provision and introduced a new “identity” curriculum. The programme has three elements – iGEN, iD and iDays – all of which help pupils to develop their awareness and understanding of the diverse society in which we live.

The iGEN strand was inspired by the work of Queensbridge School in Birmingham and requires each year group to read a specific novel – such as I Am Malala by education campaigner Malala Yousafzai, or Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy.

“The students have reading every week and a formal iGen lesson every two weeks,” Ms Bozzo explained. “There is a whole scheme of work around each text and they participate in discussions, debates and presentations, exploring themes like culture, people’s attitudes to immigration, career opportunities and world issues.”

Key stage 3 pupils also have iD lessons. These encourage a growth mindset and resilience and include everything from circus skills and meditation yoga to wheelchair basketball and spinning plates.

“It’s focused on the idea of ability not being fixed,” explained Ms Bozzo. “Students’ potential is not limited by academic ability or skill, but by their effort and perseverance.”

The school holds iDays throughout the year, encouraging pupils to consider their own roles within society. Employers and organisations are invited to work with students, set challenges and give them moral dilemmas to explore.

“We are very outward-facing as a school,” said Ms Bozzo. “The students have a social conscience and understanding. They care about other people, they care about the world and they care about what’s going on. We hold an annual community lunch and recently we’ve done a reminiscence project with a local care home. The students played bingo and games with the residents, held a tea party for them in school and invited them to a matinee of our production of Beauty and the Beast.”

The Association for Character Education paid particular tribute to the Ryburn Valley students’ “exemplary” behaviour. The school’s behaviour system is linked to its four core values of kindness, honesty, respect and endeavour and the most prestigious awards at the school’s annual Ryburn Academy Awards are the “values” awards, awarded to youngsters who have consistently demonstrated the school’s core values.

During the coronavirus crisis, the school asked students to celebrate acts of kindness. The students rose to the occasion, raising money for NHS charities and food banks, sending home-made cards to neighbours and donating pocket money to Captain Tom Moore’s fundraising campaign. One pupil recorded a podcast, asking for feedback from students about how they were feeling during the lockdown.

Broad experiences: Pupils meeting community guests shortly after a production of Beauty and the Beast at Ryburn Valley High School

The school has a strong leadership programme and encourages pupils to engage in and reflect on their own civic and moral duties. Leadership opportunities include the chance to become student council reps for their year groups and to take on ambassadorial roles.

“When students from year 8 and up have demonstrated they’ve had leadership experience they can apply to be a member of our ambassadorial structure,” said Ms Bozzo.

“They make an application, have a short interview and then we let them know if they’ve been successful. Ten students per year group get an annual contract and they have to demonstrate some form of contribution to the school. At the end of year 10 they can apply to be head boy or head girl.

“Everything we do is student-led. At parents’ evenings our students are there to meet and greet the parents. They host the community lunches and help to script and coordinate the Ryburn Academy Awards.

“When people come into school for job interviews students in the teaching and learning group ask questions and feed back to the senior leadership team. They become more and more confident as they interact with different people. One student told me: ‘I’d never spoken in front of anyone in my life before and now I’m more confident, more articulate and I’m aspiring to be head girl.’”

Like the rest of his staff, headteacher Mr Lord is proud of the impact character education has had on the students.

“We want a school full of high-performing, joyful students who are inspired with a love of learning, a zest for life and a genuine confidence to go out and flourish in the world,” he said.

“That’s our mission statement and when you walk into our school you see really well-behaved kids who have a real pride in their school and in their community. We’re building fine young people who are going to be fine adults in the future. The world is going to be in good hands with these youngsters.”

Character education tips from Ryburn Valley High School

Believe in what you are doing: As a leader you come up with ideas, you do your research and you have a real philosophy and vision about what you want to happen in your school. You have got to show that you are going to put 100 per cent of your efforts into making things happen.

It is all about the people: Once you have a clear plan and vision in place you need to develop and empower key staff – people who have the same vision as you and have the skills to put the systems in place and drive through change effectively.

Generate a team ethos: A few years ago my deputy head showed the senior leadership team a clip of a guy dancing at an outdoor concert. He looks a bit of a lone player at first but all it takes is a couple of people to join in and then all of a sudden you have a movement with hundreds of people joining in. So you need someone to come up with the ideas but after that you need two or three people to bring some energy and to make it all happen.

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education writer.

Further information & resources


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin