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Closing the attainment gap with high expectations – Why deprivation shouldn’t determine destinations

If you want to ensure a student’s difficult upbringing and background doesn’t impinge on their future, you need to set the highest expectations possible, says The Secret Headteacher…

  • Closing the attainment gap with high expectations – Why deprivation shouldn’t determine destinations

Along with ‘consistency’ and ‘half term is nearly here’, ‘high expectations’ is probably one of the most commonly heard phrases in schools. For a school to thrive and be successful, sky-high expectations are essential – but sadly not as abundant as you’d hope.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘high expectations?’ The indicators of schools with ‘low standards’ are easy to describe and sadly all too evident when walking around a failing setting.

Uniform won’t be adhered to and rules won’t be enforced. There will be evident sloppiness on the part of students and staff, alongside poor behaviour, bullying, low attendance, low exam results, low morale and difficulties with recruitment.

Teachers won’t expect, and therefore won’t get high returns on homework. Students will produce low quality work or make scant effort, both of which will be tolerated. Deadlines will be missed, with no action taken. Letters to parents will contain typos. Militancy will be rife, and the low morale almost tangible.

Sky-high expectations

In contrast, sky-high expectations are arguably more difficult to articulate and certainly harder to see in practice. All schools will talk about having them, but not all of them do (perhaps the most noticeable exception being Michaela Community School).

In schools with sky-high expectations there are never any excuses – not for poor behaviour, not for missing school, not for lack of effort or for low standards of work.

The staff will dress smartly, speak well, love children and see their job for the joyous privilege that it is. Classrooms will brim with energy and exude professionalism.

Among these teachers, there’ll be no coffee cups lurking on desks where they spend most of the lesson; instead, they’ll be on their feet, the sage on the stage, inspiring and igniting.

Union activism and militancy won’t be found in these schools. Staff won’t count the hours they put in because they’ll love their job, be well looked after by leadership, feel valued as part of a team and recognise their contributions to the school’s greater mission.

Children in schools where expectations are sky-high look pristine and immaculate.

Clear, strict uniform rules are enforced at all times. Such schools will often garner media attention when enforcing said standards against the wishes of parents who don’t like or see the point of them, but it must be a slow news week when ‘School enforces its own rules’ generates headlines.

Most importantly, schools with sky-high expectations will expect their students to excel academically. They expect them to go on to the most prestigious universities and nurture scholastic excellence. The expectation will be for all students to be aiming for grades 8 and 9.

Lagging behind

The founding principle of comprehensive education is that all students should achieve their full potential. If that’s to be possible, then we must have the highest expectations of what students can achieve.

Great comprehensive schools imbue their most able students with the confidence and high ambition shared by students at the best public schools.

Sadly, however, there are still not enough of them. There remain too many students accustomed to performing at a lower level than they’re capable of, and too many teachers willing to accept this.

These students aren’t doing the hard work needed to perform at a higher level, and more challenging tasks aren’t being regularly demanded of them.

Look no further than the most able children in the non-selective schools attended by the great majority.

A damning Ofsted report a few years ago found that poor and disadvantaged, yet bright and able children were lagging behind their better-off peers, but that’s still the situation at too many schools in Britain today, where standards aren’t sky-high, excuse cultures are tolerated and outcomes are far below what the children are capable of.

These children lagging behind their wealthier peers are no less clever, just less well-off. And yet the expectations staff have of them in too many schools are simply too low, with the result that these children live down to those expectations.

Conducting the orchestra

The biggest challenge of my role by far is finding teachers with sky-high expectations for children and an intolerance of mediocrity.

I see myself as the conductor of an orchestra. It’s my job to attract great staff, develop them professionally and value them relentlessly, while also nourishing, nurturing and looking after them.

It’s true that I’ve had to move on many underperforming staff in my time, though I’ll always take a struggling but on-message teacher over a competent but subversive teacher who doesn’t buy into and believe in the values and vision of the head.

The latter are far more corrosive and toxic than teachers who might be experiencing difficulties but will ultimately care, want to improve and believe that all children can.

One of my favourite staff stories involves a head of biology, who gripped my desk as I told him I was letting him go (many people have gripped my desk over the years) and then shouted that ‘God would punish me’.

I told him calmly that I reckoned God was far angrier at him for leading a subject where only 11% of the children had gained exam success.

I frequently tell my staff that I don’t want them to feel sorry for any children, because our sympathy will serve no purpose. And nor, of course, do I want any staff to try and be a friend to our disadvantaged pupils, because they certainly don’t need that.

Rather, I demand of staff that they do their best for these children – that is, teach them well, deliver great lessons, have higher than average expectations for them, chase them up for homework that hasn’t been handed in and maintain regular contact with their homes, however hard that might be.

Many – though not all – of these disadvantaged children will come from homes where there’s considerable poverty, hardship and domestic violence (though domestic violence is hardly unique to individuals from poorer backgrounds).

A number of these students will certainly come from homes where there’s chaotic parenting, a lack of stability, drug or alcohol problems, low aspirations and few, if any books, where reading isn’t encouraged.

Poverty of expectations

Most of our disadvantaged children will have never travelled, and thus benefited from what it can teach about different countries and cultures. Most will have never even had the privilege of an annual summer holiday.

Many of them may have barely ‘travelled’ to our capital, instead spending whole summers kicking around their local area.

The great Sir Michael Wilshaw stated in Ofsted’s Unseen Children report that, “Poverty of expectations bears harder on educational achievement than material poverty, hard though that can be.”

Consider those words, ‘poverty of expectations’. A school’s expectations. Our expectations. That’s why we have such high expectations. We won’t accept any excuses or limits. We don’t believe that deprivation determines destiny, and we won’t allow it to.


The author’s anonymously-penned book, The Secret Head Teacher: Turning around one of Britain’s toughest schools, is due for publication in January 2021 (HQ, £8.99)

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