High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.

Charles F. Kettering

Last night someone retweeted a tagline from a post I wrote earlier this year: “Teach to the top, support at the bottom”. Inevitably perhaps, someone else took great exception to the word ‘support’ and asked why those at the bottom shouldn’t be taught. Why should they have to suffer support while everyone else got taught? This isn’t an unreasonable position and begs the question, what do we mean by ‘teaching’ and ‘support’? If it means the most able are given explicit instruction whilst the least able are consigned to busy work and withdrawn intervention, then no. What I wanted to express is that we should have an expectation that everyone can accomplish something challenging and then work out how to teach them in a way that makes this possible.

Somewhat flippantly, I pointed out that saying, “Teach to the top, teach to the bottom.” didn’t quite have the same ring to it, and they countered with the suggestion: “Teach to the bottom, guide at the top.” But this, I’m afraid, encapsulates much I feel is wrong with education. It’s all too easy to lower our expectations and give pupils easy things to do in a misguided effort to bolster self-esteem. And it’s tempting to consign able students to minimal guidance that often consists of poorly conceived ‘extension’ work. 

In an effort to move the discussion on I shared another of my favourite differentiation one-liners: ‘Same bar, different ladders.’ And this is what I got back:

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High expectations, Sue Gerrard stated, are not enough. Now I don’t want to caricature Sue’s position, but I can’t help but think it’s this sort of outlook that gets teachers branded as enemies of promise. (Do please read her comments below.)

Of course it’s not enough just to expect children to meet challenging expectations without offering any support. Hence the need for those different ladders. 

Let’s consider these examples.

Firstly, the 4 year-old with the dysfunctional family and glue ear. Having glue ear is going to be a major barrier to her learning to read because she’ll struggle to hear the phonics instruction she’ll be getting. Her family’s unspecified dysfunction may well result in there being fairly low expectations for her to achieve academically, and might suggest that she’s going to receive very little support from home. So what should we do? Lower our expectations? Accept that she’s going to leave primary school unable to decode?

I’ve certainly seen what happens when expectations are lowered in this way. A few years ago I taught a Year 9 boy called Sam. He’d been written off as thick, dumped in bottom sets and spent much of his time in student support instead of lessons. The fact that he couldn’t read meant he struggled to access the curriculum, and because he was regularly withdrawn from lessons he fell further and further behind. The well-intentioned thinking was that we should meet him where he was, find out what he was able to do, and make him feel better about being to do that. And because there was no chance he was going to get a C grade, no one objected. Oh, and because his family background was a bit on the dysfunctional side, no one at home was holding us to account.

But I quickly noticed that Sam’s writing was better than you might expect. His verbal comprehension was great. So why couldn’t he read? After some lengthy detective work I discovered that Sam had suffered with glue ear during Years 1 and 2. He hadn’t been able to hear what was going on in class for two years. And by the time the glue ear had resolved itself, it was too late: he was a ‘low ability’ student and his teachers’ expectations of him were rock bottom. Being bloody-minded and having a big gob often gets me into trouble, but in this case I was able to fight Sam’s corner. I told him that if he wanted it, I would move heaven and earth to help him succeed at school. After all, as John Tomsett says, “The best pastoral care for my most socio-economically challenged students is 5A*-C EM. Period.”

We arranged for him to have an intensive course of phonics instruction by a specialist teacher and blow me, within 6 weeks he could read fluently! By the end of Year 9 his confidence was as high as my expectations for him. He went on to achieve way more than 5 GCSEs  – I can’t remember the exact figure now – and has since gone on to study sports psychology at university. Because he could. Because he had been freed from the shackles of low expectations.

I’ve never come across a student who both hallucinates and vomits at will. I’m sure they would present some unique challenges and would require more than I could provide as a teacher. But would I lower my expectations of what they could achieve? Would I buggery! It’s far too easy to resign ourselves – after all, what can you expect from ‘kids like these’? I like to think that I approach every student I’ve taught as if they can achieve at the very highest level. I really believe that intelligence is not fixed and that we can all be a good deal cleverer than we currently are. A girl called Charlotte taught me that.

Charlotte had an E grade target and, I confess, my expectations of her were low. In the opening weeks of Year 10 she told me that she wanted to get an A grade and I, to my shame, tried to manage her expectations and let her know that his was unlikely. It would be enough of a miracle if she were to managed a C! The first piece of coursework she turned in was a lowly D. She was devastated. She took it away (remember, this was the old days) acted on my advice and handed in a C grade essay. I was chuffed; she was still devastated. She took her English GCSE at the end of Year 10 (something else we’re now no longer allowed to do) and got a C. Two grades above her target. By this time I knew she’d be gutted with this result, and she was. She still professed cock-eyed, unwavering faith she could get an A. But, I knew she couldn’t. Obviously.

You can see where this is going, can’t you? Charlotte continued to plug away and retook the exam in November getting a B grade. C’mon, I told her. Enough’s enough. Be happy with your B. But she wasn’t and retook for a third time in June of Year 11. And still she didn’t get an A.

She got an A*.

Now you can say what you like about lack of challenge and low expectations and the wonky Key Stage 3 curriculum and early entry being the enemy of promise; this girl was a grafter. She believed that she could be better than she was. No one ever told her she was gifted at anything, and she didn’t care; she knew that if she worked hard enough she could get what she wanted. Even in the brave new world of linear exams, Charlotte would have found a way.

So what do we do with pupils whose self-esteem is in tatters? Make them feel better by lowering our expectations? Or struggle to get them to believe that everyone who has experienced success has done so though hard work, perseverance, support, learning from mistakes and making damn sure that they try, try again. Of course high expectations on their own are insufficient – but no one ever rises to low expectations.

Last year I taught a transition lesson to a class of Year 6 students to prepare them for the ‘step up’ to big school. I didn’t find out I would be doing this until that same morning and just for the hell of it I decided to teach them a lesson I’d taught to my Year 11s on analysing Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. At the end of the lesson I asked them to tell me on a scale of 1 – 10 how hard the work had been (1 being insultingly easy, 10 being ear-bleedingly difficult.) And guess what? They gave me a 5! When I told them the lesson’s provenance I’m not sure if they were more impressed with themselves or disappointed by the lack of challenge presented by GSCEs. The point was, I treated them all as if they could do it and, by God, they could!

Every year I expect my students to get A grades. And every year I’m disappointed when some don’t. I’m sure, come August, I’ll be disappointed again. Never mind, next year I can try again and fail better. 

Of course children arrive at school with hideously complex and sometimes harrowing back stories. Of course we should be mindful of their fragile sense of self and unique and tangled needs. But we are not employed as social workers, our job is not to make them happy. Schools will need to provide all kinds of support, but teachers should teach. And teach as if every child can achieve extraordinary things.

Anything else is a dereliction of duty.