Sir Andrew Carter, CEO of South Farnham School Educational Trust, shares his views on the perceived impact of the pandemic on student outcomes, and how to overcome these challenges through realistic, ambitious but achievable targets.

Setting ambitious targets, not hiding behind the pandemic

Hopefully, the pandemic may be drawing slowly to its end. However, the consequences of it will be with us for a long time. Certainly the economy will be the subject of long term concern but what of the world of education and, particularly, the effect it will have had on our pupils and students.

The perceived wisdom is that there will be a group of children that will have been negatively impacted by home tuition and indeed this may be so. However, we do not know the true effect yet right across the curriculum and certainly we are not yet able to ascertain whether this is a permanent issue of one which time can remedy.

One would expect, and there is initial evidence to indicate, that some young people have been negatively affected. Vulnerable children seem to have had more challenges and we must recognise that and seek ways of solving the problem.

Certainly all children will have been lacking important elements of their normal social experience. We must accept the possibility that for some children there have been very positive elements to online working. This may have been a little hit or miss at the beginning but certainly by the time of the second and third lockdowns, the majority of schools had devised fantastic learning experiences for their children.

Either way, what are we to do? How much have children actually lost in terms of learning? To be able to assess this accurately, I would suggest we have to take some measure of their learning (yes, possibly use assessment procedures). By assessing their progress we can then set ambitious targets to help them progress. The term ‘catch-up’ is sometimes used for this process and whilst it can be descriptive, it does not really capture the process. We are not trying to ‘catch-up’ to an artificial datum line, we are trying to ensure that gaps in learning are filled. However, ambition on behalf of the child is the key. We cannot assume that things have not been good and that is the way it is, so get on with it. None of us would accept it if our doctor merely told us of our ailment without some hope of a cure (there is mostly a cure).

Perhaps we should consider the proposition that children have not in general fallen ‘behind’. Supposing we assessed children upon their return and found that the majority had actually shown good progress. The pandemic may have created a seismic change in how we work with children.

I do not know any teacher who does not believe that on-line provision is here to stay. Maybe, just maybe, the pandemic has changed the ambition of schools for their children forever. Maybe pupils and their parents will want more. As an educational system, we must accept that challenge.

Creating a culture of ambition and high expectation

The Oxford Dictionary defines ambition as a strong desire to do or achieve something. Clearly successful schools fall within this definition because we all have an aim and objectives to achieve the very best for all our children. No school would be able to exist without an explicit statement on ambition. However, statements and fine words are only the start of the process. The key for success lies in strategy applied to the process of achievement. What does the school ­explicitly do to achieve success? How does it communicate its clear ambition through its practices, procedures and structures? Does everyone involved within the school understand how their own individual work contributes to the ambition of the school and does everyone know how success is measured?

Measurement of success is often an area of contention and can lead to over stretched ambitious targets. For instance, it would be legitimate to use national assessments as one of the matrix of success but certainly not the only one. Measures around pupil / staff well-being are certainly appropriate. Pupil destination would be helpful. Context for each is critical as, of course, is age range. What is appropriate and ambitious for an early years setting may look very different within a secondary school. What is absolutely true is that ambition as a concept lies at the core of success across all schools and indeed beyond. Ambition for all pupils, staff and communities is what schools are for. Schools create the future, without explicit ambition this is a difficult task.

Sometimes it is believed that to be ambitious and by setting high expectation it can create a sense of anxiety in staff and pupils which is unacceptable. The reverse is probably the truth. No one, child or adult, likes to be involved in activities which have no purpose or without direction. It is true, however, that asking someone to do something that is beyond their current skill level, with no help or guidance, is hugely dispiriting and does not create good schools.

Ambitious schools not only set the ambition, they create the means. Everyone in an explicitly ambitious organisation knows what to aim for, how to achieve it and how to access help. Ambition is meaningless unless it is achievable and set within a realistic framework.

A school where staff are ‘burnt out’ is often one which people are not at the core. Target driven organisations do not succeed where the target does not include the means to achieve them. Schooling is a human activity. People, adults and children lie at the core.

When a school sets realistic, ambitious but achievable targets, then each and every member feels valued and successful. Ready for the next challenges.

Great teachers make great schools. Great schools value great teachers. Ambition lies at the core of success.


Sir Andrew Carter is delivering a keynote address at the Raising Attainment Middle East Conference on the 23rd of March.