Recovering from Closure – Priority 3: Raising Aspirations

The trouble with schools is that good things are sometimes forgotten

This is the third in my series of 6 priorities I believe are essential, if we are to recover fully from the school closures.  Hopefully, attention given to these six areas will not only help schools recover, but place them in a stronger position than before the closures. 

The 6 priorities are as follows:

  1. Become Trauma Informed
  2. Give more time to Form Tutors
  3. Develop aspirations in young people
  4. Developing extended activities
  5. Focus on skills and habits of learning first
  6. Re-set/re-group; there will be gaps to close

Raising student aspirations is my third priority.

Back in 2002 as a Deputy in Bristol, I was preparing along with the rest of the school, to close and reopen as an Academy.  We were to be one of the first Academies to open in the country and so the pressure was on from central Government to make it work.  We were encouraged to look at innovative practices from around the world and develop our own.

One of the areas we were particularly interested in developing was student aspirations.   We were located in an area of high deprivation and saw this as a priority; our students had little drive and very few seemed to have much hope in their own futures.  

After some research we came across ‘The 8 conditions for Raising Aspirations’, developed by Dr Russell J Quaglia (See https://quagliainstitute.org/ for more information regarding his work) which provided a framework for raising aspirations in schools and which until this day, I have not found anything better.   We began to develop it across the academy and it was beginning to have some impact, but unfortunately the pressures on us to focus on performance outcomes led to it becoming yet another initiative that was never given the time to come to fruition.  And yet it was so good!  How often do scenarios such as this this happen in schools, where we don’t invest time to gain more in the future?

In the intervening almost 20 years, things have not changed much with regards to deprivation. I would argue that if anything, there are greater levels of deprivation due to various government cuts over the last 10 or so years and the pandemic as we are already finding has caused an even greater widening of the deprivation gap.   For these reasons, raising the aspirations of young people in deprived areas is essential, however if we consider what all young people have been through this past year, it’s pretty certain that they will need encouragement and motivation to kick start their own lives.  That’s why I want to revisit the 8 Conditions for Raising Aspirations.

The Framework sets our 8 conditions that we should develop in schools to raise the aspirations of young people.  One mistake we made in the early days was that we looked at these conditions as tick boxes to complete in the school. To some extent we were trying to teach students what each of these conditions were and how to go about developing them (almost like skills or competencies).   We soon realised that this was wrong, it took the emphasis away from what we as a staff body had to do to create the conditions in the school.   And so when reading the summary below, try to imagine what you would do in your school to create each of these conditions.

The 8 Conditions are divided into three guiding principles:

The First guiding principle is SELF-WORTH What do we do to create a feeling of Self-worth in our students so that they feel they are good enough to aim high (or for some – simply to have an aim).  Below are the three conditions we need to create:

Condition 1 – Creating a sense of belonging

This is so pertinent to the current situation we have found ourselves in.  Being at home and in relative isolation, even although most young people are well connected to their friends, it is all too easy to lose a sense of community.   We have seen this in the suspected rise in mental health referrals (Click HERE for initial research on the topic) during the lockdowns. 

During the closures we have all done much to maintain a sense of identity and when I look at our own school, the activities we did, may have actually brought us closer together and strengthened House identity as well as school identity.  It’s vital we don’t lose this, and so for this reason we must be focussing on creating a sense of belonging.  Belonging is likely to enhance motivation and self-confidence.

I have written more extensively about how to create a sense of belonging in a previous blog

Condition 2 – identifying heroes

Young people need figures they can look up to; others who provide role models to aspire to and emulate.  Most of us when we were young aspired to be like someone else or become that person.  The most obvious ones were the celebrities on our walls, but unconsciously for most these were in the main superficial heroes.  Young people young people are mostly influenced by are the adults they interact with in everyday life.  I accept things are slightly different today with well paid ‘influencers’ on Instagram etc, desperately trying to mould every facet of a young person’s life.  However, they are focussed in a narrow field based on celebrity, fashion and media (or am I just too old, white, male and straight, as my daughter would say, to comment on this?). 

This is why the way we act and behave in school and the relationships we develop with young people is so important and vital in the lives of young people.  We should look for ways to become heroes ourselves and introduce new heroes into schools wherever we see the opportunity.   Ex pupils, mentors from various areas of employment, speakers.  They see enough of celebrity; they need to find out more about the other ways one can lead a fulfilling life.

Condition 3 – Creating a sense of accomplishment. 

I agree with Quagila when he states that “educators have traditionally used a narrow view of accomplishment as it refers to academic achievement, innate ability, or who is ‘best in the class’.”   Creating a sense of accomplishment is about developing the resilience and perseverance to keep plugging away at something you really want to achieve.  

The first step is to help the young people in your care identify something they’d really like to do/achieve/create but have always felt it is just out of reach or not achievable.   The second step is to make sure they choose things that are achievable, but will involve some effort to get there.  We need consider the dispositions identified by Guy Claxton that go to make resilience:

  • Perseverance – what do they do when they get stuck? Recognising the intrinsic as well as extrinsic rewards gained from perseverance.
  • Managing Distractions – recognising distractions; understanding procrastination.
  • Absorption – Developing an understanding of what ‘Flow’ is and recognising the joy one can have from becoming rapt in a task or activity
  • Noticing- how others manage; patterns which have gradually become clear

There is a wide variety of things we can give students the opportunity to accomplish which are not all related to class work.  We should be encouraging them to come up with their own suggestions.   There should be celebration points when success is shared and celebrated together.  

This is one of the first tangible things we will do when we return after the break.  We’ll aim for an end of year celebration event; something that will help shake off the tensions built up over the past year. 

The Second Guiding Principle is Engagement which recognises the ways we can raise aspirations through motivation and participation.  Below are the three conditions which will increase engagement:

Condition 4 – Fun & Excitement

The first three conditions create an environment where young people can begin to feel safe and enjoy learning.  Injecting fun and excitement into learning and through whole school activities will motivate students to participate and want to learn.  It also helps young people create a sense of belonging.  

Schools should begin to explore ways to make learning fun and exciting, without losing control.  This is achievable when the following two conditions are also met.  

During the summer term, we will have ideal opportunities to engage young people in whole school activities.  Personally, I think sports days and trips (e.g. outdoor pursuits) shouldn’t be discounted this coming term.  They are therapeutic and will bring people together again.   We know now that young people (even up to 18) are safe, transmitting seldom and when they do it is a small ‘payload’ (this includes variants).  We shouldn’t avoid these reparatory activities due of our own fears as adults; we can take our own precautions.    

Condition 5 – Developing Curiosity & Creativity

When we return, it will be all too easy to adopt a didactic approach due to a misplaced (my opinion) determination to enable your students to ‘catch up’ on knowledge lost.  For the next few months, we should be encouraging curiosity & creativity at every opportunity by good questioning and problem solving or explorative activities.  

This condition is best developed alongside the next condition.

Condition 6 – Creating a Spirit of Adventure

Young people should be given the opportunity to take part in activities without fear of failure.  They will be full of trepidation when it comes to their learning and will feel ‘out of practice’. 

Encourage them to draft and redraft – celebrate the journey rather than the end results.   I always remember Guy Claxton (look him up) describing how you can tell a lot about a school by their displays.  If every piece of student work is the finished result, what does this say about the value a school puts on the journey.  Rather it focusses on the outcomes only, and so those who have a longer journey do not have that same spirit of adventure; they are afraid their work will not be good enough to be displayed or celebrated.  

Instead, a school which displays drafts, highlights the journey and celebrates the resilience and perseverance the child displayed on the journey to their finished product regardless of the outcome.  This in time will help the child lose their fear of failure and encourage them to take risks and learn from mistakes or errors of judgement.

The Third Guiding Principle is PURPOSE, which brings together all of the other conditions to focus on giving young people purpose in their lives.

Condition 7 – Leadership & Responsibility

This condition is not just about student voice/councils (which should be reintroduced in the first few weeks back), rather, it is also about developing the confidence to make decisions and take responsibility for your own actions. 

This will include the way we manage behaviour, where restorative approaches are at the fore and young people understand the consequences of their actions and the decisions they make.  

However, it is about more than just behaviour management.  It’s about tasks given which require decisions to be made, autonomously or with peers, and offer opportunities to become a leader when appropriate.  Recognition needs to be given when students do this.

Condition 8 – Developing the Confidence to take action

This for me is the culmination of all of the other conditions.  It is the ultimate thing we want our students to be able to do – to have confidence to take action and further their ideas, hopes and aspirations.  At times they may fail, but they apply the other conditions, and they will have the strength to pick themselves up and move on.

The previous conditions will have developed a positive outlook on learning and life and will hopefully have instilled confidence in young people to make a difference to their own lives. 

Finally

There’s nothing new in any of this, good teachers embed these conditions into their lessons unconsciously.  The difference here is that we need to all be conscious of these 8 conditions and the necessity at the moment to prioritise the development of consistency across the whole school when it comes to developing these conditions.   Young people will reap the rewards and flourish if we do.  

Unfortunately, there isn’t much out there in the way of resources or further reading that I can find at the moment specifically on the 8 Conditions, but the concept is certainly there to develop further.  Why not try it and share your ideas?

Here are a couple of links:

5 thoughts on “Recovering from Closure – Priority 3: Raising Aspirations

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