There are few questions which get people more hotly debating over the dinner table than that of education. How we were educated, where we were educated, by whom and to what degree of success, runs through people’s belief systems more viscerally than most other things in life’s conversations. Why? Well, we have all had to navigate a similar journey from the starting post of primary schooling to its various finishing lines – yet few if any of us have taken the same path. But what is education really for? A resume of high quality examination results are without doubt imperative in order to provide the beholder with a suitable choice over their future pathways, but equally I believe we have lasted so long on earth because of the very skills that cannot be reduced to a single test or series of tests.

Aristotle once said almost 2500 years ago, that the potential for good character – our inner drive to flourish – is in our nature, but should not be determined by human nature. We need to recognise the value of our senses, our emotions, our motivation and our character by following the right habits. Fast forward a couple of millennia and the role of character, and specifically its neglect, is what I believe to be the number one issue of our age in 21st century schooling – we are failing to see the problem because we are part of it. In a relentless drive to improve results, the pressure to achieve these outcomes has encouraged schools to succumb to the ‘iceberg effect’, a plethora of quick fix strategies which prepare us well for a life of tests and the habit of learned helplessness, as opposed to the true test of life and our inner drive for self-determination. The net result of all of this is that we are making our students more likely to suffer in future from fragile confidence, lack of initiative and be prone to anxiety and mental illness. A recent report suggested that 50% of all mental illness starts before the age of 15, and three quarters by the age of 18, therefore never has there been a greater need for schools to develop the life-long skills young people need to support their well-being.

Only this week did newly elected Labour MP Emma Hardy use her maiden speech in the commons to argue against reducing schools to “learning factories” as she described how the “narrowing” of the curriculum means the talents of many children were being wasted. She told MPs “We want our children to be creative, to question, to inquire, to explore and think independently”. So what could a paradigm shift in the way we run our organisations from the classroom right through to the boardroom look like and achieve? How many children and young adults, armed with an array of high quality exam results, have been let down because they lack the softer, non-cognitive social and emotional skills? As a generation of children emerge into the world of work of fierce competition, shrinking job markets and oversubscribed and costly higher education, the same questions continue to be asked about how inadequately prepared they are by schools being focused too much as exam factories rather than offering a well-rounded education, this coming recently from the chief inspector of schools herself. Other than exam results, what else can and should we teach students that will help them get along in life? What are the virtues, the habits, the skills and strengths in life which people, especially young people fresh into secondary school, need in order to flourish? How could a framework for recognising the achievements of these young people meet all needs and make all feel successful?

In my last post, I reflected upon the opportunities that stand before all of us by focusing on the ‘The Wonder Years’, if only we invested the most time and energy in our youngest students by getting their transition right from the end of their primary school phase through to the start of their Key Stage 4 phase. What if our schools focused more on developing the character, social and emotional strengths of our youngest as opposed to the relentless (and too often sole) focus on high stakes testing of our oldest students. We might even be amazed at the change we see in the ‘intended’ output product and whole point of schooling: nurturing professional, successful and contributing citizens (as opposed to beating last year’s results or keeping one step ahead of Ofsted).

So how can we make sure that, as well as that clutch of good exam results, our students leave school as resilient self-managers, adaptable, determined, courageous and curious, confident communicators and effective learners? To do this we need a framework to gently ‘nudge’ students rather than coerce them, one which provides deliberate opportunities for self-reflection and focuses more on their ‘habits’ within which almost every one of their decisions flows from. If we could then create an environment which not only nudges students in the right direction but provides a degree of choice and autonomy over their actions, this could in turn develop the ultimate drive towards their self-determination.

The Wonder Years

Traditional GCSEs and the facilitating A-level subjects dominate the King’s curriculum from Year 9 upwards and rightly so, with every child completing the English Baccalaureate and a minimum of one arts based subject within their chosen 8, plus an array of character enhancing core programmes of study including weekly lessons in our bespoke values based curriculum (which we call ASPIRE), a leadership curriculum accredited through the Chartered Management Institute and every student completing the Duke of Edinburgh (DofE) Bronze Award in Year 9, Silver Award in Years 10 and 11 (National Citizen Service and DofE Gold then start from the end of Year 11 onwards) and the Extended Project Qualification in Year 12. In this sense, we already offer a holistic education and a much wider baccalaureate for our students from Year 9 upwards, very similar to that championed by the Headteachers Roundtable and the National Baccalaureate Trust and already offered through the AQA Bacc for Key Stage 5 students for some time. But could something not bring together our foundation academic, creative and leadership curriculums for Years 7 and 8, with an entitlement to all of the wider activities delivered through schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh and National Citizen Service which our older students routinely benefit from? 

The Character Baccalaureate

The time is now to create the blueprint for an ideal, holistic Key Stage 3 curriculum, one that encompasses the philosophy of the school by incorporating a child’s intellectual, emotional, moral and social development, also teaching the wider skills required for life outside of school and for independent living.

This September we will offer our own baccalaureate – the Character Baccalaureate or CBacc. As part of our vision and ethos, we are keen to ensure that children leave with a desire to serve and to become the next generation of leaders capable of both analytical and critical thinking; are self-motivated and purposefully productive. As such, we have aligned the CBacc’s key performance indicators to the mission of the academy:

To instil in our students the academic skills, intellectual habits, qualities of character and leadership traits necessary to succeed at all levels in society and become successful citizens in tomorrow’s world.

What we mean by ‘academic skills’:

It is our intent that all students will develop the necessary study habits, learning strategies, personal organisation and time management skills to help them master their learning. Without mastery of learning, they will not fulfill their potential. The CBacc includes targets to instil essential academic skills of high daily attendance and a positive attitude to learning in every lesson.

What we mean by ‘intellectual habits’:

To fulfill their potential, we will insist on all students mastering ‘Key Skills to Success’, a set of core academic habits for both literacy and number work, providing the theoretical underpinning and academic rigour for achievement across all subjects and setting a pre-determined ‘output standard’ for the academy through our literacy and numeracy strategies, regardless of entry point. Further, every literacy and number output standard is mapped against the AQA Award Scheme enabling every student to achieve a raft of qualifications as they progress through their standard English and maths lessons during their foundation phase.

What we mean by ‘character and leadership traits’:

Character development is both taught and caught through lessons and the constant modelling of our ‘seven pillars of character’ which are aspiration and achievement, self-awareness, professionalism, integrity, respect and endeavour.   These are held together through the use of the acronym ASPIRE. To take this to a new level, a series of ‘pre-Duke of Edinburgh’ award sections, will provide the practical, real world approaches to learning for personal development, enabling every student to regularly invest their leisure time in developing a new skill, taking part in co-curricular school programmes before, during and after school hours and through social action by volunteering in their local community.

What we mean by ‘successful citizens’:

In order to serve and become successful civic contributors we need to help our young people become socially aware; develop a strong moral conscience and become effective communicators. To help do this, every year 7 and 8 student will have two hours per week devoted to ‘life-skills’ and complete ten programmes over the course of two years, each programme 7 weeks in length. Second, the King’s ‘experience’ includes a range of pledges, broken down by each of the ASPIRE values, designed to help build student’s social and cultural capital through a planned programme of annual visits and experiences, some provided by the school, some which are compulsory such as our annual outdoor leadership residentials and others aimed at encouraging parents and students to get out to museums, art galleries and visit cultural sites together as a family. The completion of every experience requires the student to self-reflect on the impact it has had on their development via a short journal entry, linking back to our values, whilst also feeding into the academy’s reward system.

The ASPIRE Matrix

Each CBacc matrix, which is year specific, will provide an innovative way of formally recognising students’ leadership skills and character development, encompassing all activities students are engaged in whether it’s in the classroom, across the school, or in the wider community. As students’ progress through their foundation phase, their achievement will be tracked and graded by the student and quality assured by their academic tutor, using a self-assessment matrix that covers achievement in six core areas:

  • A: Daily ‘Attendance’ & ‘Attitude’ to Learning
  • S: ‘Skill’ Development
  • P: Key performance indicators and ‘progress’ in literacy and number work
  • I: ‘Involvement’ in extra-curricular and community activities
  • R: ‘Responsibility’ through volunteering and community service
  • E: Completion of the King’s ‘experiences’ to enhance cultural and social capital and encourage family time outside of school.

The Baccalaureate is accredited at three levels in Year 7 (Bronze, Silver, Gold) and four levels in Year 8 (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Maroon). A student must achieve the same standard across all six areas in order to certify at each particular level. Students who reach the Gold and Maroon standards benefit further with a formal ‘cap & gown’ graduation ceremony at a local Russell group university, whilst those who reach the maroon standard also become the nominees for the annual ‘ASPIRE’ maroon jacket.

Here is an example summary of the Year 8 Matrix: 

ASPIRE Passport

A central feature of the Baccalaureate is that all students will carry a record of their ongoing achievements on them daily in a passport style booklet and as their evidence base to showcase their skills. The recording of these experiences, and the development of skills gained from them has the potential to be a very powerful lever to motivate our students by keeping the CBacc standards front of mind, but also acts as a focal and reference point during our dedicated morning mentoring meetings. Finally, as part of our ‘Beautiful Work’ parent and student consultation event, held in the final week of the school year, all students will lead a 10 minute presentation in front of their academic tutor and parents, reviewing their character development programme and their achievements over the past academic year.

Life-skills

A consensus is rapidly emerging in international opinion about the skills and competencies that a 21st century education should provide to students. This very question was the impetus behind the Waterloo Global Science Initiative’s Equinox Summit series, a biennial gathering of experts from around the world aimed at tackling tomorrow’s biggest challenges. During this summit, every attending nation also sent one student ambassador to debate what ‘real life’ topics should be taught in our schools. Taking inspiration from this, from September we are devoting our 2 hour Wednesday afternoon enrichment programme to ‘Life-skills’ for every Year 7 and 8 student. Over the course of two years, students complete 10 x 7 week programmes on a range of topics we feel are important to them. Here are a few:

  • Personal protection and self-defence (this is in addition to the 14 weeks of Ju-jitsu they do each year)
  • Swimming proficiency and life-saving (including an accredited first aid qualification)
  • Financial literacy, savings, student loans, mortgages
  • How to talk like a Tedster (this is in addition to weekly lessons in public speaking)
  • How the brain works and effective strategies for revision and knowledge retention
  • How to write a beautiful story, poem and letter
  • Gardening & horticulture
  • How to survive university (cook 5 great meals; how to iron; essential DIY)
  • How to survive your DofE expedition in Year 9

We hope that the Character Baccalaureate will provide a formal way to champion and celebrate the leadership development of our students, recognise their achievements in and out of school and equip them all with the necessary habits aligned to our mission statement, thus enabling a seamless transition into Year 9 when they begin their formal GCSE programmes of study and accredited leadership awards. We also hope that it will further develop collegiality and relationships between staff and students and senior students with junior students. As part of the programme senior students are encouraged to support and co-teach with their teachers during enrichment and extracurricular activities in order to develop a school ethos of students leading students and to put the professional coaching and leadership awards they gain each year to good use.

I look forward to providing a progress update after the first term, but in the spirit of mindset and candour, we are always looking for feedback and ways of improving, so please do get in touch with your thoughts. Thanks for reading.

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