In the third of a series on behaviour, Amy Forrester explains why setting low expectations for children with challenging lives isn’t being kind – it’s selling them short
High expectations. Zero tolerance. Warm strict.
They’re all phrases that feel on trend currently in education. But what does it mean to us, as school leaders, to have high expectations and, crucially, why does it matter so much?
If we are agreed that education changes lives, and I believe it does, then high expectations determine just how much lives do change. Let me explain.
Student A has had a challenging life. She has spent long periods moving between foster homes; she often finds the demands placed on her at school too much to cope with. When she doesn’t complete her homework, her teachers let her off; after all, she’s had a hard life. Shouldn’t we just be grateful she’s in school at all? In her lessons, so long as she’s not kicking off, her teachers leave her to it. She doesn’t get much done. Years of this behaviour mean that this has become her version of normality. Kind-hearted but ultimately misguided staff have lowered their expectations; and she’s meeting them.
Student B has had the same challenging life as student A, but in her school, she gets support to do her homework. Her form tutor checks what’s due the next day with her each morning. She has somewhere to go after school to get help if she’s stuck. In her lessons, she finds learning difficult. The disruption to her learning over the years means that she’s missed a lot of foundational knowledge. She has a low chronological reading age and struggles to access the curriculum. But her teachers know this; they fill gaps as they emerge. They ensure their materials aren’t obstructive to her reading. She has 1:1 reading intervention to bring her reading along. In her lessons, teachers expect that she reaches the same learning end point in every lesson that every other student does. Her path might be different, but her learning isn’t. Her teachers expect her to learn, to apply herself and to try; and she’s meeting those expectations.
It’s not hard to see where the better provision is in this cautionary tale. And yet, too many students end up as Student A, and rarely through any malice on teachers’ part. It’s easy to see how one might feel that lowering expectations for students is a kindness; it means they reach them. And there lies the problem - they reach them.
The truth is that if we let students off, we let them down.
As school leaders, we are in trusted and privileged positions. We set the expectations of our schools as a whole. It is imperative then that we set them to the highest of standards.
We also have a vital role in ensuring these expectations are the same on the ground, with our staff all rowing together and living those expectations in every interaction they have with students.
Our messaging, and our actions, need to ensure that our expectations live fruitfully within our students. When we look at Student A and Student B, our responsibility is on ensuring they are all given the opportunity to be a B.
The message Student A receives is that no one cares if she doesn’t do her homework. No one places value in her or believes she’s capable. That she won’t learn like her peers.
And this is where high expectations – warm strict, zero tolerance, whatever you want to call it – fundamentally changes the lives of young people. Because despite having all manner of challenges thrown their way, a student will meet whatever expectation we have of them. As school leaders we owe it to all our young people to ensure that our expectations are sky high. And to ensure that they know that they are important, valued and invested in.
Amy Forrester is Director of Behaviour and Futures and an English teacher at Cockermouth School, Cumbria. She is the Tes behaviour columnist and tweets at @amymayforrester.