5 tips on raising aspirations: being the spark that lights the fire

Jan. 25, 2018
Sean Harris

Sean Harris

Assistant Headteacher at Norham High School

“We are the spark that will light the fire…” (Poe Dameron, Resistance fighter in Star Wars; The Last Jedi)

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This blog is part of Ambition:Feed's Raising Aspirations challenge. 
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Teaching is an all-consuming job. It can feel like you are the only one in the intergalactic battle against low aspirations, socio-economic disadvantage and changing grade boundaries.  

Because it was the end of a busy term, when I went to watch the latest instalment of Star Wars I linked everything back to the current education climate. Instead of feeling despair at the never ending battle between good and evil, it made me feel hope.  

So here are my 5 thoughts on raising aspirations, all with a hint of Star Wars but with references that can be understood by all.  

1. Build your rebellion on hope 

In a time of changing accountability measures and grade boundaries, we have to remain positive and celebratory for our pupils. Jyn Erso, a Star Wars character, states “We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope”.  

To ensure no-one felt a lack of hope on GCSE results day, we themed ours to ensure it was celebratory regardless of national standards and headline measures. The theme was ‘a morning at the Oscars’ and staff came in evening attire, we had a red carpet and even cardboard cut-out celebrities.  

The local media loved it and were keen to come and interview pupils to capture the positivity; they didn’t want to know about the national GCSE issues, they just wanted to celebrate with us.

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2. Don’t see it as a battle 

In my experience, a militant approach to raising aspirations isn’t effective.  

I discovered this a few years ago when we enforced a new uniform policy and stood at the school gate like stormtroopers, (not literally) ready to inspect. It sent out completely the wrong message. One pupil pointed this out in saying, ‘instead of just going after the kids that get it wrong, you should be saying well done to those that always get it right’. 

In the end we did exactly this: awarding praise postcards and praise points to pupils that did get it right. We replaced detentions for a lack of uniform with resolution meetings, so pupils could air their issues with us and discuss why uniform did in fact matter.  

3. Be approachable: don’t walk the corridors like a Sith Lord 

I had heard rumours about the school before I joined. It was known locally as a challenging school. I thought that the way to deal with this was to patrol the corridors daily like Darth Vader himself,  breathing heavily whenever I entered a room to let my ‘nasty’ presence be known.  

It took me an academic year to realise that it had a detrimental effect on pupils and was taking up too much time and energy. I used praise postcards again here: instead of visiting classes to tell pupils off, I visited to hand out praise postcards to those who had demonstrated an excellent attitude to learning.  

We had fun with these too, during the spring term, we gave out crème eggs and egg-shaped postcards that celebrated ‘cracking progress’.  

"In my experience, a militant approach to raising aspirations isn’t effective"

4. Reach out for the stars in your galaxy (community) 

We recently introduced prestigious awards evenings to celebrate achievements in style.  

We invited former pupils, our local neighbourhood police officer, our chair of governors and leaders of local businesses. They all gave gift vouchers and chose a category from a list of awards that we had come up with. We then invited them to come and give the awards to pupils that we had selected.  

5. Share the myths and legends 

Aspirations rocketed as pupils vied to get the awards. One parent recently commented to me, “My son has never received anything like this before. He is over the moon about it and we are desperate to show his award off to all of his family at Christmas”.  

Meanwhile, a former pupil turned professor was so inspired to be able to give the Award for Resilience to a Year 7 boy that she not only offered him a £50 gift voucher but invited him for a full day of work experience at a local university to raise his aspirations even further!  

I hope that our experiences to date prove of some use to you as you navigate the stars of tackling low aspirations, restricted budgets and changing accountability measures! 


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Sean is a graduate from our Future Leaders programme. Future Leaders is a two-year intensive leadership development programme for senior leaders who aim to become headteachers of schools in challenging contexts within three years.

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