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High Ambition

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts

We believe that children are capable of extraordinary things – they just need the right environment to flourish in. Schools have a major part to play in this, and parents and teachers can be key players in shaping our schools.

We want educational excellence for every child. We believe that this is achieved when all schools have a strong culture and a great curriculum, underpinned by four key mantras:

  • Warm/Strict
  • Knowledge Rich
  • High Ambition
  • Wide Curriculum

When schools are built on these foundations, every child can thrive, no matter their background or starting point.

What do we mean by. . . “High Ambition”?

At its simplest, the phrase means that any child will be prevent from achieving their best if they are not set challenging goals and are not convinced that they will be given every support to reach their goals, encouraged by teachers who firmly believe those high goals are indeed achievable. It doesn’t matter what circumstances pupils arrive at school with, everything around them must be organised to prepare them for and help them achieve a fulfilled life.

PTE, and the educational movement it supports, believes that the starting point to achieve this is a culture that demands the best both from and for children. The culture should give every child the ambition and motivation to aim for the highest prizes, supporting them to achieve their hopes and dreams.

High Ambition starts with high aspirations for, and great expectations of, the child.

To accomplish this, every aspect of school life has to be designed in a carefully considered and coherent way, helping young people to do and be their best: whether it’s the lessons planned, the assemblies held, how pupils are encouraged to behave, or the exams they sit. Above all, each child must be instilled with big ambitions for who they are and what they can become, thus avoiding what has often been called ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’. The child must be able to see that there is a programme they can follow that will help them reach that high ambition.

Importantly, High Ambition need not be about encouraging every child to go to university, or to aim for specific careers or status, or earning lots of money, or to leave behind their families and hometowns. It is not one-size-fits-all.

It is about children growing up feeling that they have agency over what they do in their lives, and equipping them over time with the necessary knowledge, skills, connections, experiences, and attributes to act on this.

Children need to develop an intrinsic motivation. Research shows that motivation is a major predictor of achievement in academic situations, being almost as important as intelligence. Drive and ambition are inter-related non-cognitive factors which have also shown to be strongly correlated with success; students who scored highest on ambition and drive scored on average half a grade higher per GCSE than students with the same level of prior attainment but with lower determination to succeed. This effect on results had a greater effect than that of family background or the school attended.

A focus on High Ambition also helps equip children with resilience, whose skills are almost as important as cognitive skills for achieving educational qualifications. Children need to be unafraid to try, to not succeed and to be able to learn positive lessons from the experience and try again; making it clear to the child that the school insists on High Ambition will help develop that needed resilience.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

High ambition and resilience are both essential for good mental health. Research into neuroplasticity has shown that by explicitly rewarding positive behaviours, we are able to hardwire these into the brain. According to American psychologist Professor Roy Baumeister, research on negativity bias has shown that unless helped, we tend to remember, and focus more, on negative experiences. It is therefore particularly important that children experience as many positive experiences as possible, guided and aided by High Ambition, to help them become happier, more positive adults.

It is not for schools to decide for their pupils where and what they should go on to do, although the school should provide wise counsel and guidance, showing the possibilities to the learning child. The school’s role is to help children achieve “escape velocity” – fuelled and powered by a great education – so the children with proper High Ambition decide for themselves where they want to go with their life, and what they want to do. Of course, for many, the High Ambition leads them to a leading university or a top-class apprenticeship or drama or arts school. For each child, as their education develops, the ambition becomes tailored to their specific interests and goals.

An essential part of High Ambition is the way that schools and their people think and talk about their pupils. Schools with High Ambition never say or think “our kids won’t be able to achieve that”, but instead ask, “what must we all do to ensure everyone can do this?” 

Such schools don’t presume “our pupils won’t find that relevant” but think “how do we engage and excite them by this?”

They design a curriculum that opens the whole world up to their pupils – that builds on and is not limited by what they already know from their home and community.

Such schools level up not down and equip their pupils to be able to grapple with the full potential of the world; they don’t dumb things down – behaviourally, emotionally, culturally or intellectually.

This is what we mean by High Ambition. At schools that do it right, a child starts their first day at the school absorbing that culture; and they take that culture with them, out into the world when they finally leave.

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