Leadership programme

Values characters: helping children learn and grow

Holly Rule


Thornbury Primary School

One of Thornbury Primary School’s signature practices is the use of Animal Aces. The Animal Aces involves specific skills or abilities being referenced in terms of an animal character. There are nine Animal Aces:

  • Resilient Lion
  • Focused Fox
  • Connecting Spider
  • Resourceful Magpie
  • Curious Cat
  • Creative Squirrel
  • Friendly Otter
  • Truthful Toad
  • Caring Kit

Children can earn Animal Ace points or stickers for demonstrating the skills associated with the animal character. For example, if they have persevered with a challenging task they might get a sticker for being a Resilient Lion.

This is a whole school approach and it is integral to the school’s ethos. During my interview for the position as teacher, one of the interview tasks involved creating a circle time activity that would promote the use of the Animal Aces. I brought in a broken cup. We discussed a scenario in which someone had broken my favourite cup and explored what we could do to rectify the situation through the lens of the Animal Aces. The children, of their own volition, discussed being Friendly Otters, Resourceful Magpies and Truthful Toads.

Every classroom has posters for each animal that gives examples of behaviours that characterise the Animal Ace, as well as a stem sentence they could use to embody it. It’s relatable to children and it can be applied to academic and social skills. Where I work, in Year 2, the Animal Aces are a good vehicle with which to teach the pupils about soft skills. The Animal Aces give them a voice and the language to be able to talk about how they are feeling, which younger children sometimes find challenging. It opens up conversations, helping them to identify and articulate a really broad range and scale of emotions, helping us meet the school's mission of encouraging students to be their best self, acknowledge their own special talents and qualities, and be comfortable to be both the same as, and different from, their peers. New parents value this approach, frequently mentioning the Animal Aces scheme together with the quality of Thornbury’s staff, as the overriding reason they choose the school.

Children are given stickers for demonstrating behaviours that embody the Animal Aces. When they reach 10 stickers they receive an Animal Ace certificate. Certificates are handed out in Key Stage celebration assemblies, along with the Star of the Week and any other celebrations of children’s accomplishments. The children are so proud of their achievements, which can be seen on their faces but can also be heard when they tell their friends, “I’m going to tell mummy that I've been a lion today!”

The scheme has encouraged children to take ownership of the animals. During peak COVID times, when schools were in lockdown, a Year 5 pupil wrote to Claire, the head teacher, to suggest the idea of creating a new Animal Ace: the Caring Kit as at that time it was very important for everybody to care for each other. The Year 6 children also invented the Truthful Toad, recognising that we try to teach children that it is okay to make mistakes as long as we tell the truth. The children worked together to design the Truthful Toad, which was then used to write stories about how the toad became truthful for their work portfolios.

Thornbury Primary School recently won the School of the Year for Pupil Wellbeing award at the TES Schools Awards. Amongst other things the report discussed the use of the Animal Aces scheme to benefit pupil’s wellbeing. This demonstrates the importance of schools going against the grain and sticking to their beliefs.

For me, the Animal Aces give children a vehicle to help understand and talk through complex concepts. This ability to communicate really improves children's positivity and happiness, which is so important if we want children to learn effectively.

Holly Rule, Year 2 Teacher, Thornbury Primary School

Big Education

Leadership Programme

Applications are now open for headteachers and senior leaders working across education. The programme gives you the opportunity to connect with your authentic self and equip you with powerful strategies to bring about the changes you believe in.

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This blog is from a school taking part in The Next Big 10, a programme for schools who are transforming education against strong headwinds

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