Practice makes perfect in a school of virtue

University of Birmingham School principal Michael Roden talks to Richard McComb

There cannot be many homework planners where one of the most prominent pages asks pupils: “What virtues have you shown today?”

Below the question, embedded in a heart shape, are words such as kindness, courage, service, resilience, honesty, loyalty and kindness.

Anchoring the page, a second question is posed: “What virtues will you show tomorrow?”

The language of character is both implicit and explicit at the University of Birmingham School. This is not a one-off homework assignment or even an extend project; character and virtues are the bedrock of the school and they inform everything that takes place at Weoley Park Road in Selly Oak.

Clearly, it is a vision that has chimed with parents who respect the importance and value of academic rigour but believe there is more to education than metrics and school league tables. Before it opened its gates in 2015, there were 1,231 applications for 150 places in Year 7, making it the most over-subscribed comprehensive in Birmingham.

This year, for only the second intake, there were 1,580 applications – 10 for each place. “If things hold true, we could be the most popular school of any type in the city this year,” says Principal Michael Roden.

Mr Roden explains that the Framework for Character Education in Schools developed by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues is a vital reference document and underpins daily life and forward planning at the University of Birmingham School. Character education and enrichment is built into the bricks and mortar of the place.

But surely the concepts of good character and Aristotelian virtue are too grand and “difficult” for 11-year-olds to grasp? Far from it.

“The children pick up the language of character very quickly,” says Mr Roden. “Exams are important but it is more important to be happy, to be good, to be a good person. When I talk to parents and prospective parents, I talk about the importance of having the correct moral attitude, looking after others and improving the lives of others. And people get it, it’s what they want.”

When he took up his appointment in April 2014, Mr Roden had 16 months to get the school up and running. The principal and the senior team that would later join him had to display several performance virtues of their own as the clock ticked down, not least grit and perseverance – construction of the school’s new building was on-going the day before pupils arrived.

The school has a diverse intake with a broad range of prior attainment levels. Half the pupils come from the local area and the other half are drawn from three admission hubs in Small Heath, Hall Green, and the Jewellery Quarter. The hubs were chosen with the local authority from areas with an under-supply of school places and selected to reflect the city’s diversity.

Mr Roden decided it was important to boost the traditional role of form tutors. Every day starts with half-an-hour of form-based character education and there are 10 minutes at the end of the day for reflection with tutors. During group reflection, the form teacher and class typically discuss what they have enjoyed that day and talk through any difficulties that may have arisen.

On a Monday, children use their journals to look back on the previous week and assess targets for the next five days. Each year group has a weekly assembly based on a theme of character development.

Character education remains high on the political agenda and former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan captured some headlines when she announced a £5 million fund to promote character in schools.

However, extra curricula activities aimed at promoting the virtues, such as music, sport and drama, traditionally take place off timetable at the end of the day, which Mr Roden thought was inappropriate for some children. He says: “It seemed that the pupils who needed to develop resilience and would benefit from these activities often go home. So I decided to integrate enrichment into the school day. Every member of staff and professional staff contribute to the programme.”

On any given day, there might be cooking, sports such as karate, athletics and volleyball, the school radio and newspaper, knitting or Pilates. The teaching curriculum is effectively suspended on Wednesday afternoons when a rolling five-week programme of life skills might include sessions devoted to learning a musical instrument, first aid or cookery. Last year, 140 pupils performed at a school concert including looked after children and youngsters with special educational needs.

Year 12 pupils organise their own voluntary placements, focused on the idea of service, including working in primary schools and old people’s homes.

The development of this wide-ranging programme is given a high priority in the school and is overseen by senior vice principal Rebecca Tigue, who is director of character education.

Mr Roden believes the ethos, and its practical implementation, has huge benefits for staff as well as pupils. “Staff who had been working in other schools were tired of the instrumental nature of education,” he explains. “This is also about the character development of the our staff. They get time with students outside formal teaching and it makes a massive difference.”

He adds: “The hardest thing when we started in 2015 was everything was new and everybody was new, the staff and the pupils. Character education was new to a lot of people. But it is about holding your nerve and doing the right thing. I am confident it is working. Putting children first and giving them the best possible educational experience is what it is all about.”

And practice, as they say, makes perfect, whether that involves understanding trigonometry, kinetic energy or the virtues.

As pupils’ homework planners make clear: “Practice is vital for success. This is the case for everything and anything you do. Whether it be aiming higher in music or sport, achieving in maths or French, or becoming a kinder, more patient and more compassionate person, practising is the only way to develop key virtues, skills, techniques, spellings and familiarity with knowledge and working methods.”

The homework, in that sense, never ends but it is hard to think of a better education for life.

Michael Roden is Principal of the University of Birmingham School.

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