Over the last 4 years West Rise Junior School has been one of the highest performing schools in Eastbourne and the surrounding areas, while serving a diverse intake (between 33% and 40% eligble for free school meals). The school attributes this success in part to their innovative character education aimed at developing children’s grit and resilience, including through their widely-recognised use of outdoor learning (for which they won a TES Primary School of the Year award). Andrew McKechnie shares more about the school’s approach.
Character education: what it means to be a values-led school.
Thanks to media coverage over the last few years, the outdoor learning work we do as a school has been well recognised.
From Tes’ feature on the school: “the school rents a marshland from the local council on which the pupils run a farm (including a herd of water buffalo), excavate and recreate a bronze age settlement, meditate, experience land management skills like shooting and hunting and engage in a vast array of historical skills like flint knapping; meanwhile, back in the school building there are innovations like Room 13, a dedicated art space to which pupils can go during the day to be creative.”
What is perhaps less well known, is the way in which our outdoor learning (alongside other initiatives in the school like the student led ‘Room 13’ art project, school radio station, peer mediation, paddle boarding and the UNICEF Rights Respecting School initiative) form part of a values-led approach to curriculum design and life of the school – one in which the development of core character traits can be seen in action.
Developing our focus on character education
The promotion of character traits started through close joint working with a forward-thinking educational psychologist on a ‘positive psychology’ project with the school. The project resonated with much of what our school was already focused on – outdoor learning, student led projects and, in the words of our school ethos, ‘developing independent and creative learners’ – but hit upon something broader: the notion that what we are doing is developing character and resilience in our learners.
From the positive psychology project, the core Character traits our school promotes emerged. These are: Perseverance/Resilience, Kindness, Gratitude, Love of Learning and Teamwork. To start with, this began by building new lessons into our PSHE curriculum, having weekly assemblies focused on character traits and awards to promote exceptional acts of character. From there, the promotion of character traits has expanded out to include the wider curriculum.
Values-led enquiry topics
For example, our Year 6 pupils have recently come to the end of the enquiry topic ‘Why do we have wars?’. Through an enquiry approach to learning (to help encourage a Love of Learning), the children explore how character traits have been used in different situations – war becomes a vehicle to explore character traits such as Perseverance/Resilience, Kindness, Gratitude and Teamwork alongside national curriculum objectives.
Their next enquiry focus for Year 6 is around climate change both locally and around the world – in an age of flood resilience plans and renewable energy the topic again provides a great platform again for exploring our core character traits alongside national curriculum objectives.
The role of outdoor learning
It is not just in the classroom but outside too where promotion of character traits is at the heart of our school values. The argument that forest school can promote perseverance/resilience, has been well rehearsed. But for us, forest school goes beyond this – it is a space where all character traits can be promoted.
A few examples include: every forest school session ends with a gratitude circle, where children can express something they have been grateful for over the last few hours; children make hot drinks for each other rather than for themselves; activities are left out for children to choose – not be timetabled into – to help develop a real love and appreciation for what that are doing, a space in which they can access the elusive ‘flow’ learning state (see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on this – his TED Talk can be viewed below).
Character building really can – and should- permeate all of school life.
In the spirit of ‘Love of Learning’, as a staff we are also learning from others. One way we are doing this is to further develop our curriculum with an enquiry focus. For this, through Whole Education I had the opportunity to visit the wonderful All Saints Junior School in Fleet and learn about their innovative curriculum design from Deputy Head Carmella Reece (this was as part of WE’s Spirals of Enquiry programme, find out more at the link).
We are still early on in the process of adapting our curriculum to become more enquiry focussed, but as the Year 6 examples mentioned above show, a shift to a more enquiry focus need not mean moving away from national curriculum objectives- or our intention of being a values-led, character building school.
Find out more about West Rise by visiting the school’s website. What approaches are you using to develop children’s character? Tell us on Twitter @wholeeducation or using #wholeeducation.