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Opinion29th October 2014

Transforming students’ lives through high expectations

Matt Jones is the head teacher of Ark’s Globe Academy. 56% of pupils at the school are on free school meals and 38% speak English as an additional language, both well above the national average. Here, Matt writes about how he’s managed to turn the former Geoffrey Chaucer Technology College from a school in special measures to one with consistently strong Ofsted and exam results.

Focusing on goals

I was brought up on a West London council housing estate in a single parent family. Growing up, I saw very talented people around me who were unable to succeed. I was a professional footballer for a few years and then I went on to become an educator. You could say that I was lucky but fortunately (with the support of family and school) I’ve made the most of my luck.

When I was 15 my friends living on the housing estate would be out drinking, experimenting with drugs and I’d tell them ‘no, I have to stay in tonight.’ If I hear a boy here at Globe Academy tell me he wants to be a footballer, I’ll tell him what that really means. You need discipline; you don’t go to the chicken shop, you eat healthy, you get to training on time and you don’t go out with your friends on Friday night if you want to play well on Saturday. The reason I can talk so passionately about this to them is that I went through it myself.

At Globe, our daily message to students is that success comes down to hard work and effort-based intelligence. The harder I work at something, the better and more efficient I become at it. But there’s more to it than hard work and that’s where high expectations come in.

This road map to success may not be to scale

Young people in inner-city neighbourhoods don’t often get to see people around them who have been successful. If your friends and your parents haven’t been to university, you won’t have the example that helps you imagine yourself in that position. Without that road map, you’re going to lack confidence, or you may think that getting C grades in your GCSEs is good enough, so we start informing our students of what we expect of them not just in year 7, but even before that, in our primary school.

We try to make our school the most significant culture in that student’s life. Not the streets, not their peers, not the television, but instead our ethos of high expectations and hard work. The children are already ambitious; it’s just that we have to fill in the gaps to show them how to achieve.

Changing aspirations

The easy bit about having high expectations is stating it as your mission; the harder part is following through on a day to day basis. For example, here, when a teacher asks a student a question that they’re not sure about, we expect more than an answer of ‘I don’t know.’ Teachers here will challenge a student and say ‘can you think more deeply about this?’ or even ‘I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.’

Shadow Education Minister Tristram Hunt visited Globe Academy recently. He was talking to some of our students and he asked them, ‘what do you want to do when you leave school?’ Not one of them mentioned being a footballer or being a singer. What he heard was ‘I want to be a marine biologist, a politician, a doctor.’ I felt proud to see that shift in culture, but also knowing that it was happening in a practical way, where those students are being supported in working towards those goals.

How to succeed in business: don’t say ‘innit’

You cannot expect to go into a university environment and expect to pass an admissions interview by saying ‘innit’ and ‘yeah bruv.’ It’s not going to work. Rightly or wrongly, you will be expected to present yourself in a certain way. We’re asking our students to move from a very diverse community with a high ethnic minority population (more often than not on very low incomes) into an environment that is almost exclusively white middle to upper class environment, i.e. top universities. For you to be successful in that environment, you need to know the cultural cues and social etiquette of that environment. Otherwise you’re going to feel marginalised. We’ll help prepare them for this.

Here we measure our success not just by GCSE scores; how many of our students have gone onto Russell Group universities in the last five years? We set a target, our first year, 20% and the year after that 40% – this would be on par with independent schools. If you walk around the corridors here and ask students if they plan on going to university, 99% of them will say yes. There’s no silver bullet in education, but everything stems from those high expectations and pure hard work.