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What does it mean for a headteacher to have high expectations?

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Dame Sally Coates has spent more than 40 years working in challenging schools, including a decade of leading some of the toughest schools in London. She has just published Headstrong: 11 Lessons of School Leadership. Here she expands on one of those lessons: being courageous and having high expectations for all.

All headteachers would claim to have high expectations, but their actions don’t always live up to these claims. Some headteachers lower their expectations by denying an academic curriculum to the majority of their students. Others do so by tolerating low-level disruption in class, or by making excuses for their students based on their ‘difficult background’. Perhaps it’s not until you’ve personally seen students shatter the glass ceilings imposed on them by society that you can truly believe that all students can be successful, even in the toughest academic courses.

In my first headship at Sacred Heart in Southwark, I saw students from the most deprived south London estates compete with peers from the most privileged schools. This experience enabled me to flood Burlington Danes Academy with high expectations when I arrived as principal in April 2008. Ultimately, my optimism was based on what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls the growth mindset: the belief that intelligence is not fixed and – consequently – that every child has the potential to flourish.

In practice, ‘high expectations’ means securing the best possible outcomes for all students through relentless personalised support. We are told that schools must ‘close the gap’, whether the gap is between boys and girls, rich and poor or black and white. Yet the best antidote to gaps in achievement is ensuring that schools quickly notice any dips in progress from each one of their students. This isn’t fanciful – it just requires a carefully planned monitoring system with clear lines of accountability.

Of course, high expectations work both ways, and stretching students to fulfil their potential means pulling them up when they fail to meet agreed standards. Some readers might be surprised to hear that we issued a same-day one-hour detention for students who were late in the morning. By ‘late’ I mean any time, even a few seconds, after the bell went at 8:30. I’m aware that this sounds rather harsh, not least given the transport problems that we regularly face in one of Europe’s biggest cities. The rationale behind the sanction was that it compelled students to be punctual. We tell students that every minute counts at school, so we’re betraying our own advice if we fail to sanction tardiness in the morning. There’s nothing wrong with a school being strict as long as the sanctions imposed are clear, consistent and transparent. Readers will be reassured that most of our students lived within walking distance of the school, so didn’t strictly rely on public transport.

Beyond the detention hall, high expectations must be reinforced in every lesson. One of the most important things a head can do is to establish strong cultural norms through a clear behaviour code. Once a culture of excellent behaviour has been established and consolidated, all further strategies and interventions can be planted on fertile ground. Conversely, launching a new teaching and learning strategy without establishing sound behavioural norms is like trying to plant tropical fruit in a boggy potato field.

In my new role at United Learning – a multi-academy trust – I oversee 17 secondary academies across the south of England. It’s my job, along with the local governing body of each school, to ensure that high expectations permeate every corridor, classroom and playground. The government’s accountability framework is sufficiently robust that all schools pay close attention to achievement in key year groups, such as year 6 and year 11. So rather than encouraging an obsession with these headline figures, governors should ask questions about the Key Stage Three curriculum – does it provide a rigorous platform for academic success at A-level and beyond? Governors should ask to see evidence of progress in all year groups, and should check that the data presented in spreadsheets is supported by the work in students’ exercise books.

Governors and multi-academy trusts also have a key role to play in ensuring that students have access to a rich co-curricular programme. Young people shouldn’t need to go to independent schools in order to access orchestras, debating clubs, chess competitions, creative writing groups and combined cadet forces. Ambitious headteachers realise that equipping students to pass exams is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for leading a truly outstanding school. Governors should seek information about the range of residential trips, and about the number of galleries, theatres and museums that students visit each year, ensuring that these opportunities are taken up by all students, not just a select few.

So high expectations mean believing that a young person’s future is not dictated by her present or past. It means creating systems which track the progress of all students and intervening when this progress dips. High expectations mean establishing a culture of discipline and compliance with agreed norms, with sanctions in place for those students who fall short. These high expectations must be set out on day one and reinforced every day thereafter. They are underpinned by courage: the courage to take risks and to face up to the reality, however grim; the courage to take the ethos of the school into the street beyond; to have frank conversations with staff and tackle issues head-on; the courage to be vigilant and resilient, avoiding the distractions and complacency that will throw you off course.

All leaders would claim to have high expectations. The challenge is to constantly reinforce these expectations in your daily contact with students, parents, teachers, senior leaders and governors.

Headstrong: 11 Lessons of School Leadership, by Dame Sally Coates (John Catt Educational Ltd, £14.99.

Further reading to help

If you're a member of our service for school leaders, take a peek at this article on addressing low-level disruption in the classroom. You might also like to find out how other schools are dealing with this issue. If you're more intrigued by Dame Coates' determination to get pupils to school on time, have a look at this article too.

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