If there is one phrase I hear to justify any kind of policy in education, it’s “high expectations”. Whilst “high expectations” itself is something we can all aspire to maintain, how it is defined is often unclear, ill-fitting and, in some cases, unreasonable.

The culture of high expectations is often announced alongside a new initiative or when justifying a controversial existing one. When challenged against what other schools are doing differently to them (with success) it is often deployed as a shield to block further need for justification, whether through an evidence base or just more detailed linkage to outcomes desired.

High expectations is often used to describe the expectation on the school as a whole and for every child, whether it is for behaviour or academic performance. Many schools, I am sure, will have high expectations of every child instead of a high expectation of all children. This subtle difference is key and feeds into the concept of knowledge rich relationships.

Knowledge rich relationships have, inevitably and unfortunately, fallen to the wayside as teachers have become busier than ever before with ever more pressure placed upon them. When put under pressure to perform, teachers are likely to focus on what can be measured – results. Extra curricular activities, pastoral time etc are reduced. The opportunities for getting to know a child beyond what content they have absorbed has reduced. There is no blame on teachers for this, but we need to be conscious of this.

Where knowledge rich relationships exist, teachers/pastoral staff have an in depth knowledge of the child and their unique circumstances. They know the child well and have spent time understanding them. Based on this rich knowledge foundation, these staff know exactly what to expect, when to expect it and what to do when achievable expectations are not met. They know when to pull back and when to push forward. They don’t set an arbitrary target and insist that it is met, regardless of circumstance. The ends do not justify the means. A child who leaves school without the mental health capacity to enter the workforce (or even just thrive) but with a string of A*s does not equate to success.

Acknowledging you cannot know what to expect of a child you do not know is a key foundation for effective behaviour support. I can have the highest expectations of myself to complete a sub 10 second 100m, but it does not mean I will be able to. Does that mean I cannot push myself to improve? No. But it also means I am not going to create a system where I continue to associate myself with vast failure. You can build a school with no disabled access and “expect” every child to be able to enter (don’t – it’s illegal and wrong!) but it doesn’t mean they will be able to.

The higher you build your expectations on the most limited of foundational knowledge base, the further disadvantaged children become from community, the further they have to fall as they scramble up to conformity and the more damage that occurs when they hit rock bottom. Again. And again. And with every fall and crash to the bottom, the longer the narrative of failure they have undercutting their self esteem.

So what can we do? Most children, fortunately, can meet most reasonable expectations within the school setting. But those who continue to fail to be able to do so, give them as much time as you can afford, even if just 10 minutes every other day. Request it. Demand it. Make the time positive, make it about you as much as them – tell them you value the time. Enjoy the time. Increase your learning of the child, adjust your expectations, make them measurable and specific and make them part of it. Celebrate the most minor successes. Make it clear you are on a path to meeting wider societal expectations but that, for no fault of the child’s, they have further to travel.

And a little knowledge goes a long way.