Tip #16: Are your high expectations vague and valueless?

CC - Tip #16 – Are your high expectations vague and valueless

‘High expectations’ is a buzz phrase used so often it’s rendered valueless. Bring context to the vagueness and make it mean something in your school.

Fluffy feedback

‘You just need to set high expectations,’ she said after an early-career lesson observation. It’s senior leadership feedback many of you have probably also received but she may as well have said ‘shout more’ or ‘expect them to do handstands after showing them only once’ for all the difference it made. It was a waste of everyone’s time.

I can understand why she asked for high expectations though: Ofsted (2016) mention them 8 times in their official guidance. A major problem is their unwillingness to define them anywhere on their guidance or website. Perhaps Ofsted doesn’t know what they are. Perhaps they don’t want us to know. But, if the term’s that fluffy, why use it at all?

Successful schools start with successful behaviour

Tom Bennett (2017) makes high expectations a superhero in his DfE commissioned report, Creating a Culture – it’s there, everywhere, seemingly conjuring miracles in the UK’s most successful schools without ever making itself truly known. He refers ‘the way things are done around here’ and this is a useful starting point in defining what high expectations might be in your school. Bennett’s premise is that excellent behaviour is the cornerstone of the UK’s most successful schools and it’s modelled and communicated by everyone from the headteacher to the dinner supervisors. Still, he’s loose with his definition of high expectations.

Doug Lemov (2015) also promotes high expectations in his book ‘Teach Like a Champion’ although thankfully he goes further. After studying the US’ highest-performing teachers, he discovered common techniques and gave them pithy names such as ‘No-opt Out’ and ‘Right is Right’. They are all visible examples of high expectations in action and while I recommend you read his book and try his techniques, they may not be right for your school. In fact, off-the-peg high expectations from anywhere probably aren’t right for your school.

Off-the-peg vs bespoke expectations

Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions
Hofstede’s (2017) 6 Cultural Dimensions help you unpick your pupils’ cultures. 

Every school has a different cultural background and this will affect the type of expectations that will be successful. While many argue that expectations should be universal, Hofstede’s (2017) 6 cultural dimensions cast doubt on whether it’s reasonable or even possible. Take, for example, power distance. In communities with strictly defined hierarchies (high power distance), authority figures must never be challenged so that no-one ‘loses face’. The expectation is that pupils should never question, even if the teacher is wrong. In communities with much looser hierarchies (low power distance), pupils are expected to challenge authority figures if there’s good reason. An example might be, ‘You shouldn’t punish her Sir, she was only telling me to stop.’ Whether you agree with the high or low power distance examples misses the point to some extent – high expectations must take into account pupils’ existing cultural values to be successful.

Difficult questions for Goldilocks

Therefore, the whole school needs to define what high expectations look like, not just the senior leaders. While the culture will need to be led from the top of the organisation, it’s the community as a whole that will be tasked with making sure the high expectations are met. Pooling the school community’s knowledge in an open forum will also help put high expectations in the Goldilocks zone – aspirational but most importantly, achievable.

You might consider these questions:

  • What do high expectations look like in class?
  • What do high expectations look like in books?
  • What do high expectations look like in the corridor?
  • What do high expectations look like on the playground?
  • What do high expectations look like when teachers and pupils talk?
  • What do high expectations look like when speaking to parents?
  • What do high expectations look like in the dinner hall?
  • What do high expectations look like for our oldest pupils?
  • What do high expectations look like for our youngest pupils?
  • What do high expectations look like for our vulnerable pupils or those with SEND?

This list is by no means exhaustive, but they may be useful for your school to start a discussion. It’s important to frame your definitions positively – ‘What you should do’ is much more powerful than ‘what you shouldn’t do’. The former is aspirational, the latter sounds like a nag.

Finally, for high expectations to mean something, pupils need to know what they are and why they exist. Assemblies, circle times and one to one conversations are excellent forums for communication because it’s important for pupils to question your definitions so they understand them and can buy-in to them. Not making pupils aware is like playing a game and making up the rules as you go – a guaranteed recipe for frustration.

Defining high expectations won’t automatically make your school a world beater. It also won’t be as easy as throwing a vague buzz phrase around. It’ll be tough to do, but it’ll almost certainly add value to your school community.

Do any of these thoughts ring true with you? Are you clear on what your school means by high expectations? Please comment below with your stories.


Hofstede, G. (2017). National culture. Retrieved 7th July 2017 from https://geert-hofstede.com/national-culture.html

Bennett, T. (2017). Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour. Accessed 6th July 2017.

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach like a champion 2.0: 62 techniques that put students on the path to college. John Wiley & Sons.

Ofsted. (2016). School inspection handbook. Accessed 6th July 2017.

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