Character education: Co-curricular not extra-curricular

Written by: Matt Bawden | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Our resident expert on character education, Matt Bawden, kicks off the year with a focus on mapping the many activities that promote students’ personal development in school

“Pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development equips them to be thoughtful, caring and active citizens in school and in wider society.” Ofsted Inspection Handbook

Placing clubs and activities at the heart of personal development is nothing new, but keeping a careful account of what they offer our students might be.

In this article, I address why such auditing is important and offer a simple way forward for those schools, like mine, who wish to capitalise on the skills and character development opportunities they can deliver.

The above quote is taken from the “outstanding” grade descriptors for Personal Development, Behaviour and Welfare in the latest Ofsted handbook.

The quote is not part of what should be seen as a checklist, but it does provide a vital clue to the health of a school. Clearly students ought to become more thoughtful, more caring and more active during their time in school.

Stepping down a level from outstanding to “good”, Ofsted highlights students as needing to be “responsible” and “reflective”. However, organising a school’s personal development agenda solely for the benefit of an inspectorate is never a positive way to act. In the short-term, it may bring about a better report, but in the longer term progress made will not last. Instead great schools organise personal development for themselves, their students, their staff, and their community.

A key aspect of personal development surrounds the activities we put in place before, between and after the lessons – the extra-curricular.

Calling them “extra” curricular seems slightly idiosyncratic, out of place, or worse, when talking about sports clubs, hobby groups, or support meetings. A school’s curriculum is there to develop a range of skills, knowledge, understanding, and application in exactly the same way as a school club might.

A series of English lessons may develop patience as the students read a text. They learn knowledge of the plot and language devices, understanding of how these devices convey meaning, and the ability to apply these devices in the student’s own work.

Similarly a run of coaching sessions on the hockey field will also develop patience as they wait to receive the puck. The players learn to wait for the ideal time to receive the puck, knowledge around when to pass, understanding of the correct method to pass and when, and finally the ability to apply their learning to the game.

My point is that the two are complementary; they are “co-curricular” not “extra” curricular. In each the students learn patience. In each they acquire knowledge and understanding. In each they apply their learning to their actions. In essence the different scenarios are complementary. To say an activity is “extra” is in a way to devalue it.


I first came across the term “co-curricular” when talking with staff from UWC Atlantic College in the Vale of Glamorgan about the great youth social action campaign Step Up To Serve. Here the college staff meant far more than a loose collection of clubs and activities their students may, or may not, opt in to.

There is a very clear approach to supporting academic study; the value of what many term extra-curricular is inextricably linked to the academic through experiential strands.

These are seen as an opportunity for self-discovery and the pursuit of a grand passion. Activities are co-ordinated from within co-curricular faculties and are both broad and varied in nature. I would thoroughly recommend visiting their website for further information on their approach.

What happens in our wider school life? How does it link to our values?

When I use the term co-curricular it helps me to keep in mind the wider gamut of benefits each and every activity brings.

I am not remotely suggesting schools need to take the leap and organise activities into linked faculties as some do. Instead I suggest keeping an eye on what happens and when. The table below might prove useful for those with Ofsted’s “outstanding” and “good” criteria (as mentioned earlier) in mind.

Alternatively there are other, perhaps better ways to proceed. At my school we chose to view “outstanding” as independent of the three column headings in the first table, and instead sought to explore activities with the headings listed in the second table below.

We did this because they are our agreed school values (QEGS stands for Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School), underpinning everything we represent. Somewhere we have a key that links our four values to Ofsted criteria, but they came first, not vice-versa.

Clearly if the Duke of Edinburgh Award helps our students question what they can achieve then it helps meet the Ofsted requirement for a good judgement as the students “reflect”. If they are helping others as a part of the rugby coaching element they are not just giving but also showing “care”.

Many schools now have a core set of values proudly displayed in entrance lobbies and on websites. Few really make the explicit link with the broader range of school life. Yet they are what we profess to be about.

They do represent our ethos, and are what we live and breathe. Noting how our clubs and activities contribute would seem sensible.

Who? When?

We can take things further by adding in which students take part and when. This is useful for tracking participation and making sure all students are accessing the co-curricular offer. They are shown as years and numbers in the activity column of the table above.

Tutors are likely to have more of an idea as to who accesses which activities and when, but the school should have an overview.

Not every student wants to take part in every activity and it can be hard for schools to offer a wide range to suit everyone. However, student voice can identify activities not previously considered, and sometimes staff have interests they cannot wait to offer. Schools therefore need to think about why staff are not already offering this breadth. This might involve offering time, training, financial support for equipment, or perhaps reassurance.

Character at the heart of co-curricular

Current government thinking suggests the need for all schools to “build character and resilience in every child” (Educational Excellence Everywhere White Paper, Department for Education, March 2016).

Having an explicit understanding of the roles our clubs and activities have in schools helps us talk meaningfully about the impact on our students’ personal development. We can isolate particular qualities developed through participation in chess club or swimming coaching. These can then be mapped to corresponding subject areas, where these qualities are also valued.

A student who can focus on learning a new stroke in swimming club or different openings in chess club can also focus while learning about circle theorems in mathematics, and it never hurts to remind them of this when they are playing up in a lesson.

Activities involve choice. The things we choose to do are those we tend to have a greater emotional affinity with. When we feel emotionally involved in an activity we learn in a deeper more connected manner, and our qualities have a chance to blossom.

As we flourish we might consider how often we ourselves transfer what we learn about curiosity, focus, drive or honesty into areas of our lives we have less control over.

Highlighting them can really help us to do this, making them more effective, and boosting our chances to flourish. So it is not all about Ofsted, yet the inspectorate is not far wrong in suggesting that developing thoughtful, caring and active students (who are also reflective and responsible) would make an outstanding goal for our schools.

  • Matt Bawden is an assistant headteacher at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne and editor of the Association for Character Education eJournal Character Matters. He is a former teacher-in-residence with The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues. Follow @ourschoolday. To read his previous articles and SecEd’s other best practice relating to character, visit

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