My situation with raising aspirations is a little different.
I’m the executive headteacher of a federation of social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) schools that teach pupils coping with complex learning difficulties and distressing personal circumstances, in an area among the most deprived in the country.
To break the cycle of aspirational disadvantage, we set out on an ambitious project; we wrote to inspirational figureheads from around the globe, asking them to send us a signed photograph and some words of wisdom.
In doing this, we hoped to show our pupils that they don’t need to face the challenges of the future alone and that they should aspire to achieve great things.
We then created a book compiling the responses to give to the students, with staff and governors also given copies. The famous names giving advice ranged from Emma Thompson to David Walliams to John Humphreys. Our award-winning ‘Aspire’ project became the inspiration behind the naming of our new federation of schools.
1. Keep high aspirations at the heart of your vision
We spent over 12 months developing a mission statement, vision and values for our schools and engaged all stakeholders including students, teachers, families, governors, psychologists and members of the local community. The result of our efforts can be seen in our mission statements. We made sure these were kept in mind throughout the Aspire project.
2. Develop student resilience
Research has shown that the skills involved in resilience are almost as important as cognitive skills for achieving educational qualifications by adulthood.
To raise awareness of the importance of resilience we have a number of positive quotes adorning the walls in our school, one of which is often attributed to Winston Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
3. Create a culture where young people are offered a second chance
Who are we to judge? When our students make mistakes we always allow them the opportunity to have a second chance. When challenging behaviour is displayed we should be very careful not to label children - we should not be asking ‘what is wrong with you?’ rather we should be asking ‘what happened to you?’ and ‘how can we help you overcome these challenges?’
4. Promote solution-focused conversations
A recent study from the Manchester Institute of Education explored the links between academic attainment and children’s mental health.
Their report indicated that children’s experience of school may be critical to the onset of mental health problems. To promote a positive outlook, staff at both schools have embraced a coaching culture.
Professor Walter Mischel, creator of the famous marshmallow test, suggested that using goal-oriented thoughts helps us to develop levels of self-control which also further develops our resilience.
5. Celebrate success and promote wellbeing for all
According to Professor Roy Baumeister's research on negativity bias we tend to remember, and focus more, on negative experiences. During these times of high stakes accountability I believe that we should focus on delivering as many positive experiences for young people as possible.
The latest research into neuroplasticity shows that the brain remains plastic throughout our entire lives and that by explicitly rewarding specific, positive behaviours we want to encourage, we are able to ‘hard-wire’ them into the young people we work with.
Psychologists call this the 'Matthew effect’ and it is based on accumulated advantage - namely the happier you are, the happier you will become. By sharing that happiness, you will be able to boost others’ well-being.
In my view, we absolutely must commit ourselves to raising children’s aspirations but should also be mindful that with a reported ‘child mental health crisis’, emotional wellbeing should also be at the front of our minds; it should not be an optional extra.
I will leave you with the quote from the inspirational Liverpool boxer, Natasha Jonas, who personally handed out the books to our boys, following a series of boxing masterclasses she led for them: “You have three names in life. One you are given, one you inherit…and the other you make for yourself.”
Steve is a facilitator on our Expert Middle Leaders programme (formally called Teaching Leaders). Follow the link to the webpage or fill out an enquiry form to find out more about our two-year fully-funded training programme.
This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.