The Anatomy of High Expectations

What do High Expectations for able learners look like?
What do High Expectations for able learners look like? (Einstein’s Brain!)

A lot has been written in the last week about the experience of able learners in state schools.  The OfSTED report published last week was widely reported in terms of failure, despite using a small evidence base of 41 schools and subsequent articles and posts have focused on the issues in different ways:

David Didau, @LearningSpy captures the issue of teaching with high expectations brilliantly and considers the impact of underestimating what students can do in this post: What does Gifted Mean Anyway?

Geoff Barton gives an excellent impassioned response to the suggestion that schools can be lumped together, battered by sweeping generalisations derived from flawed methodology and limited samples in Pass the G&T

Tim Dracup @GiftedPhoenix has argued that the KS2 to KS4 data does actually give cause for concern.

It seems to me that there is value in filtering out what value there is in the OfSTED report and use it as a tool for some self-evaluation.  My understanding of these survey reports is that they are meant to explore some general issues; they are not meant to be turned into system-wide judgements and a line has been crossed in this case.  Geoff is right to be irritated by the headlines and the general thrust of Michael Wilshaw’s comments when his school doesn’t match the description of a place that is failing the most able. The data doesn’t really stack up either because of the classic bell-curve standards delusion.  More children get Level 5 than get A/A* on the bell curve; it is not surprising, therefore, when not all L5 children at KS2 get A/A* five years later.  And if they did, there would be a national outcry about easy exams instead of a celebration of success.  Tragic but true.

BUT, …from my perspective, it is important not to be defensive on behalf of the whole system when considering teaching the most able, however irritating these pronouncements and damnations are.  In fact, as I say in my post about a Total Philosophy of G&T, I believe very firmly that if schools cracked the issue of teaching our most able students, then the whole system would be transformed; this suggests that we haven’t cracked it yet.  The data doesn’t necessarily stack up in the way it is presented but, for me, the experience of schooling is just as important as the outcomes.

Let’s look at what OfSTED are saying in terms of recommendations:

The key OfSTED recommendations
The key OfSTED recommendations

Away from all the rhetoric and dodgy data, these recommendations make perfect sense.  My first-hand experience and observation, as parent and school leader, is that expectations can be too low too and these recommendations ring true. How does your school rate against these recommendations?  How much further can you go?  It is worth having a very deep, honest look.  It isn’t about working hard or doing well despite the challenges….it is about completely meeting needs of the most able, regardless.

In my experience, it is true that some schools do not project a strong culture and ethos where very able students are championed; often bright students are regarded as ‘doing fine’ rather than being enabled and encouraged to find their true limits.  I’ve spoken to Heads and teachers who are not entirely comfortable with the idea of academic excellence as an ethos-defining concept and, in their legitimate desire to promote inclusion, they are almost squeamish about talking about universities and Oxbridge.  I’ve encountered this on various school visits and engagements and on the school Open Evening merry-go-round as I describe in this post.  Some schools manage to project insecurity and lack of confidence rather than giving able students a deep belief that they too can go to the best universities or get the most challenging jobs.

I’d suggest that OfSTED is correct in highlighting KS2-KS3 transition  which is hardly a national success story; I hear this all the time. I’ve called it the Berlin Wall of our system and far too often, Y7s are babied and patronised instead of allowed to fly from the position they reached in Year 6.  From Day One, some children are systematically under-challenged; they are not expected to work as hard as they could and their sights are set lower than they could be… in some schools. Maybe not yours..

Setting may not be a panacea but mixed ability teaching is difficult. It may be the most desirable mode of grouping for social inclusion; it may even lead to the best average rates of progress; but, very often, it is not done sufficiently well for the most able to thrive at their maximum capacity.  They are held back. I’ve seen that too and I’ve measured it.  I’ve done it myself. The theoretical notion of mixed ability teaching often flounders on the limited capacity of a teacher to make it work; really work.  We’re only human.

There could be more research for sure but I’d bet on outcomes that show quality of teaching is the key factor – not the grouping system, if you could apply the necessary research controls.  So, for example, a lower ability group taught with high expectations by a great teacher would probably progress better than similar lower ability students in a mixed ability class taught by a mediocre teacher who teaches to the middle.   This debate is polemicised too often, reduced to ‘setting is bad; mixed ability teaching is good’ or vice versa without looking at the precise configuration of sets, the quality of provision in each set, the expectations of the teachers, the curriculum and the parameters allowing students to move between sets – against the similar issues in a mixed ability class.  The OfSTED recommendation is for schools to evaluate mixed ability teaching – not to abandon it. That seems fair enough to me.

The recommendations about homework and the general level of expectation at KS3 echo what I hear all the time from friends and colleagues, parents with children at my school who compare their experience with siblings at other schools and various school leaders and teachers.  Before I joined KEGS, I would say that the most common complaint I received from parents as Head of Year or school leader was the lack of challenge at KS3.  I’ve dealt with this issue over and over again; patchy homework, work that is too easy, lessons disrupted too often and teachers too accepting of work that is below par.  The KS4/GCSE phase seems to kick everyone up a gear but  it’s a long time to wait for a bright kid in Year 8, once the Year 7 adrenalin has ebbed away.

As I’ve described in several other posts, arriving at KEGS opened my eyes to another world of expectations even though I’ve always been a vociferous champion for the most able.  I don’t have time for people who dismiss this as merely elitist or tell me ‘it’s alright for you’ as if their students are not entitled to the same level of expectations as mine.  As someone said on twitter recently; teaching 19th Century fiction is not elitist; not teaching it is elitist. I feel  the same about the level of challenge students experience.  Instead of suggesting my school’s existence is inherently wrong, people could be saying – OK, let’s see what it would take to match that challenge; let’s get as close as possible to setting our expectations just as high.  This is easier in some contexts than in others, of course.  But can it be done? I believe so, if the intent is there.

Here is my take on what it looks like to succeed:

The Anatomy of High Expectations:

  • Make teaching the most able students a top-line priority, even above narrowing gaps.  (This can be a false promise as I describe here.) Tell staff, students and parents that you will stop at nothing to make sure students find their very limits, intellectually as well as in other aspects of school life; expect them to do the same. It’s a nuanced balance.  Teaching to the top, aggressively and with determination has benefits for all learners. Raising the ceiling is more powerful than pushing up the floor… in my opinion. Of course, you need to try both but the ceiling effect would be my priority.
  • Embrace the language of excellence in all communications: assemblies, newsletters, staff briefings. Never diminish it; never characterise the most clever kids as freakish or even ‘brainy’. Normalise academic excellence; expect it; model it.  Wrap up technical/vocational learning in a context that doesn’t ever set academic learning as beyond reach for anyone.  If the Head or Head of Year is not comfortable being the voice of academic excellence, then someone else needs to be. Who is giving your messages? What are they saying? Are they inadvertently celebrating mediocrity? These things make a difference.
  • Talk explicitly in terms of rigour and scholarship.  I like the phrase ‘scholastic excellence’ used by OfSTED.  What’s not to like? Talk about learning and studying as a reward in themselves; give value to academic pursuits in assemblies and public messages alongside pastoral concerns.  Make it feel completely normal that students will do at least 5 hours of study per week in their own time, from the very first contact with parents. It could be more like 10 hours during KS4.
  • Set lots of challenging homework; don’t allow the fact that some students find this challenging or the reality that not every student will do it to pull down standards in this area.  The most able students in any school could be set a level of challenge to match any is just a question of intent.  If you reach a point where your most able students are struggling to cope with the volume, you might be in the territory of imposing limits – but otherwise, take the limits away.  There is a lobby against homework.  To me this is akin to arguing against learning poetry – it is elitism. It is an equal opportunities issue. It should not be up to a teacher to limit a child’s opportunity or capacity to study between lessons. Parents who don’t like it can simply rebel. Let them if they insist; but set the standards for the rest.
  • Celebrate subject expertise and normalise intellectual debate as part of the diet of school life.  Engage effective role-models who embody the joy of learning and studying and the success that results from hard work; showcase students who project confidence in using the language of academic learning.  Make the use of technical language a high priority when evaluating the quality of teaching and learning.  Are students routinely expected to give extended, reasoned answers? Are they at least given the opportunity to? Do teachers use CPD time to deepen their subject knowledge?
  • Provide a curriculum that is challenging and aspirational as well as inclusive.  EBacc is a horribly lame, deeply flawed construct – but only because we can do better than that; not because it is inherently unattainable.  Be very rigorous in your evaluation of curriculum days and any blocks of time not allocated to formal learning.  Is it working – really? What do your most able students think?  If they hate it, do you at least allow them to opt into something different.  If it is too soft and woolly and the learning outcomes are too fuzzy and ephemeral…the value is probably too low to be justified. Be super critical about these things and very careful that the subliminal message is not ‘low expectations’.
  • Ensure that technical/ vocational learning has parity where this is in your curriculum by setting the same standards – not accepting lower standards.  BTEC Science is not  meant to be ‘easy Science’ – don’t let that happen or become the folklore if you are sincere in your view about parity of esteem.  This debate is too one-sided; it is a challenge for Technical qualifications and the teachers of them to show that they are as rigorous as their academic counterparts…a challenge that has to be met, not given freely.
  • Give students responsibility and the opportunity to be trusted both in terms of behaviour and learning.  This links to the homework culture.  Overnight homework? Why not?  Read the whole text over half-term break? No problem. Do a full three page essay in Year 7? Yes, of course.  Accept that half-done scrappy piece of copying-out?  Absolutely no way!!  Get the right balance in terms of supervision and trust -are you putting barriers in the way of students who would happily read quietly or get some work done in a classroom at lunchtime? Are you imposing restrictions on everyone just because of the poor behaviour of a few?
  • Get the basics right and keep them tight.: Uniform, expectations of equipment, behaviour routines and so on.. but avoid giving a low expectations message.  A student who will engage with a sign that says ‘Bring a Pen to Every Lesson’ probably doesn’t need to read it – but they get a different message: “We have very low expectations of you”.  Similarly with uniform:  clip-on ties are low-expectations enshrined; any student who can wear a normal tie sensibly should be allowed to. Surely?  ( I enjoyed a jokey twitter exchange on this a while ago where we imagined students being issued with one-piece jump suits with a suit and tie printed on them, thus avoiding any shirt tuck or tie issues altogether).  If you tolerate the Waterloo Road style, perhaps go non-uniform altogether.  Make the behaviour policy learning focused and raise the bar continually.  Harsh discipline that doesn’t lead to better learning is worse than anything in terms of buy-in from able learners.
  • Avoid soft rewards that undermine high expectations.  There are teachers who give rewards for ‘opening the door’ or ‘sitting nicely on the carpet’. I think we can expect a bit more than that.  My daughter’s rewards points are a source of great mirth among her friends because they are given liberally to people who do not model excellence; they are given to people as rewards for meeting the basic expectations the others already meet. It’s killed it.  In any case you need 100s just to buy some rubbishy biros. Cheap rewards are not worth having.
  • Take transition very seriously and make sure the Y6 taster day and  every lesson from Day One onwards feels like the lift-off they were expecting on hitting secondary school.  Find out what they already know and take them from there…

If you are doing all this stuff already, then great. I know schools that do this and it shows.  But if everyone was, I don’t think the OfSTED report could have been written.  Let’s have a really good hard look at the reality and do whatever is necessary to raise the stakes.


  1. “you will stop at nothing to make sure students find their very limits”
    I don’t agree that children *have* limits…Suggesting they do is having low expectations. Once you start assuming they have limits, you start thinking, “they won’t be able to do this” and you lower your expectations.


    • I agree with the spirit in what you are saying. I guess I mean something else… eg In Year 9 getting an A* in GCSE Maths might be beyond the limits of most kids at that time…but, definitely, you want to push them as far as they’ll go.


  2. Always a pleasure to read your insightful posts. As a KS2 teacher it is so useful to look at where our children are heading. I will be moving to Year 3 in September and look forward to raising expectations there as children transfer from their infant schools.


  3. Me parent: I agree with most of that, but you’ve managed to wind me up with the “volume” of homework and especially “overnight”.

    Why not? Well you’ll limit the capacity of some bright kids to do worthwhile things on their own initiative i.e. a quality that helped earn them their label. Overnight is especially presumptuous in that it assumes children’s home-lives are devoid of other valuable interests in arts, sports, scouts/guides/whatever, that might preclude having enough time for overnight school-stuff on certain evenings.

    A school assuming that their assignments are a better use of any given child’s time does seem a teensy bit elitist. I would rebel, with a cause.


  4. For some students, being able to control their bodies to sit quietly on the carpet, or taking notice of others’ needs to open the door for them IS an accomplishment, and I think we need to allow teachers the flexibility to reward students according to those things that require effort for those kids. For some, academics is a breeze and the normal social stuff is hard. The goal is to create well rounded kids, all around, and I don’t think there is one program or philosophy that can fit all students in any classroom.


  5. I know this will wind up some readers, but in my experience stretching the most able is one of the things that many independent schools do extremely well. It’s why I believe strongly in independent schools and state schools working together and learning from each other. In a number of respects I think the independent sector is behind the curve, but I think that this is one element of their practice which is often exceptional.


  6. As a primary school teacher I support this wholeheartedly. Too often, our children leave us at the end of Year 6 with a raft of useful information on their levels of achievement and areas of curriculum studied only to be placed in limbo for the first term of secondary school whilst the Year 7 teachers ascertain their ability?!? We can only pass the information on, what is done with it is up to the receivers. Please, oh please take note. We know the children well. Promise!


  7. […] Teaching to top has been a long-standing principle of effective teaching from my perspective.  One of my early blogs was ‘Gifted and Talented Provision: A Total Philosophy‘ and it remains one of the topics I am asked to talk about most often in CPD sessions.  I no longer think that Gifted and Talented is a helpful label – it never was – but the principles are the same.  I’ve also covered this topic The Anatomy of High Expectations. […]


  8. […] Teaching to top has been a long-standing principle of effective teaching from my perspective.  One of my early blogs was ‘Gifted and Talented Provision: A Total Philosophy‘ and it remains one of the topics I am asked to talk about most often in CPD sessions.  I no longer think that Gifted and Talented is a helpful label – it never was – but the principles are the same.  I’ve also covered this topic The Anatomy of High Expectations. […]


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