This summer I have had the enjoyable task of observing a granddaughter learn to walk. Watching her perseverance and her willingness to take risks was a delight. No matter how many times toddlers tumble over, their eagerness to explore their world drives them forwards and upwards.
Parents and teachers know children are naturally curious and constantly seek to explore and challenge the world they find. What is true when they are young remains true for most when they enter adolescence. Adults may not always find this easy. We struggle to accept that, by definition, childhood is a time of learning and a time when mistakes are made.
A month into the new school year and a month away after the August silly season, some common sense is returning in discussions about young people. The response of those who saw the riots as proof of school failure has been shown to be arrant nonsense. In fact, relatively few of the rioters were of school age. Faced with foolish criticism, it is easy for educationalists to become defensive. As teachers, we see too many children who no longer have the curiosity and confidence of their early years. For them the world isn't an exciting place to explore but one where they have been judged and found wanting. Ambitions have become narrow or negative. Worse still, for some teenagers ambition is something that only applies to others.
Pursuing our ambitions can be a painful process. Setbacks are part of that process. Children need to be taught to be resilient and to see failure as a spur rather than as a definitive judgment. At any age a failure will be a disappointment, but it must not be allowed to mark the end of hopes. A child without aspiration is a sadness and a mark of failure. Ambition needs to be nurtured. It needs to be visualised. The toddler learning to walk can see all the advantages of being fully mobile. Teenagers need the same clarity and guidance and role models need to be provided.
This year I am chair of the judging panel for the Ambition AXA Awards, which aim to identify talented youngsters with the potential to succeed. Winners will receive coaching to help them realise their ambitions. High expectations are vital in education, but on their own they are never enough. Exhorting a youngster to improve is meaningless if they do not understand what they need to change to effect improvement, or lack the means to do so. Politicians would gain from absorbing this truth, but so would some schools.
Imparting knowledge will always be a prime part of teaching, but the quality of assessment given by teachers is fundamental to engaging children in learning. When we get these things right in schools, children are valued and developed and the results are seen across the community. In these schools, all children know their learning matters and pupils actually know what they have to do in order to improve. Ambition applies to all.
Sir Alan Steer is a former government behaviour adviser and former head of Seven Kings High School, Redbridge
The #163;200,000 Ambition AXA Awards for 11 to 18-year-olds seek to identify and reward young UK talent and achievement in enterprise, science, community, sport and the arts. The entry deadline is 14 October. www.ambitionaxaawards.com.