Set high standards for pupils - and yourself

It's all very well for teachers to talk about lofty expectations, but we must live by them if we truly want to make an impact
27th February 2015, 12:00am
Steve Harris


Set high standards for pupils - and yourself

Schools have long recognised the role of high expectations in ensuring good education. If teachers expect the best from students and those students expect the best from themselves, everything else tends to fall into place.

But although schools preach the importance of high standards, do we really practise this as teachers? We need to examine the way we operate as role models.

Make every moment count

Schools praise excellent attendance and punctuality, rewarding pupils with unblemished records and admonishing parents who are late to the school gates. The message is clear: time in school is precious and not to be squandered.

Yet we don't always give that impression. As the end of term approaches - or sometimes even the end of the week - watching films, playing games and countless other "relaxed" activities can creep in. This is not seizing every minute.

Why not use this time to give pupils opportunities that are not available to them at home? How about going off timetable for a flexible day in which pupils can specialise and play to their strengths, using school resources more creatively? Let those who yearn for maths create challenges, let those who love to dance choreograph a performance and let young scientists conduct experiments and share their findings.

Time is also routinely lost waiting for classes to file in and out of assembly or other communal school events - these periods can be used to pose philosophical conundrums, moral challenges or lateral thinking problems.

Create meaningful homework

We moan when homework is completed badly, or not at all. We complain about parents who don't impose strict enough standards, or who appear to have done the work themselves. But are we really doing enough to signal our expectations?

We should be sharing success criteria and guidance with parents so they know what to expect and how to provide support. Homework needs to be routinely marked and then returned to parents with helpful comments so they know how to support further improvement. We need to set varied, imaginative and well-planned activities rather than falling back on repetitive favourites.

Take advantage of the fact that home is not like a classroom and set tasks that can't be done in the school environment.

Highlight the importance of pride

Whether it's for sloppy presentation, careless mistakes, shabby uniform or laziness, we routinely criticise those who do not care about the impression they give to others. Schools often go to great lengths to make a good impression with bright, clean reception areas displaying photographs of pupils. But how far does this presentation extend beyond the front door?

If you want to judge the standard of a restaurant kitchen, don't look at the dining area - that's for show. Look at the toilets and the car park. They offer clues about how far the culture of pride really goes. It can be a slow process to bring every corner of a school up to standard, but something inexpensive and effective can usually be done to refresh most areas.

A school I worked at spent years improving one space at a time. Now every wall is a work of art. The entrance to the library is via a bridge and portcullis. One corridor has circular windows and is decorated like a submarine.

These things take time, but you can start by looking at every aspect of presentation. Does your newsletter still use the template provided by Microsoft Word? What greeting do guests receive if they are kept waiting? Some schools routinely offer a coffee but others barely acknowledge their visitors.

Welcome criticism - and use it

This is only the beginning. We ask pupils to review and improve their first efforts, and we know that those who can take criticism and demonstrate how they have used it to improve are set for success.

Schools should actively seek suggestions for improvement. Communication, buildings, paperwork, parents' evenings, breaktimes, staffrooms - every aspect of a school could probably be improved in some way.

So encourage everyone to offer ideas and act on as many as possible. Showing that suggestions will be implemented will encourage more of them. In short, ask others how you can be seen to be doing your best.

Steve Harris is a freelance consultant who works with schools on building student motivation and character. For more information, visit

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