Raising aspirations in the inner city


Former professional footballer Matt Jones is now a headteacher in Elephant and Castle. He discusses how he tries to instil a culture of high expectations in his students.

I was brought up on a West London council housing estate in a single-parent family. Growing up, I saw very talented people around me who were unable to succeed. I was a professional footballer for a few years and then went on to become an educator.

When I was 15 my friends living on the housing estate would be out drinking, experimenting with drugs and I’d tell them, “no, I have to stay in tonight”. If I hear a boy at Globe Academy tell me he wants to be a footballer, I’ll tell him what that really means. You need discipline; you don’t go to the chicken shop, you eat healthy, you get to training on time and you don’t go out with your friends on Friday night if you want to play well on Saturday. The reason I can talk so passionately about this is that I went through it myself.

Globe Academy is a short walk from Elephant and Castle in London, and many pupils live on the nearby Rockingham Estate. The largest groups of students are of Black African, Black Caribbean and Bangladeshi heritages. Fifty-six per cent of pupils are on free school meals and 38 per cent speak English as an additional language, both well above the national average. 

At Globe, our daily message to students is that success comes down to hard work and effort-based intelligence. The harder I work at something, the better and more efficient I become at it. But there’s more to it than hard work, and that’s where high expectations come in. 

Young people in inner-city neighbourhoods don’t often get to see people around them who have been successful. If your friends and your parents haven’t been to university, you won’t have the example that helps you imagine yourself in that position. Without that road map, you’re going to lack confidence, or you may think that getting C grades in your GCSEs is good enough, so we start informing our students of what we expect of them not just in year 7, but even before that, in our primary school.

We try to make our school the most significant culture in that student’s life. Not the streets, not their peers, not the television, but our ethos of high expectations and hard work. The children are already ambitious; it’s just that we have to fill in the gaps to show them how to achieve. 

The easy bit about high expectations is stating it as your mission; the hard part is following through on a day-to-day basis. For example, when a teacher asks a student a question that they’re not sure about, we expect more than “I don’t know”. Teachers will challenge a student and say “can you think more deeply about this?” or even “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out”.

Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt visited our school recently. He asked some of our students: “What do you want to do when you leave school?” Not one of them mentioned being a footballer or a singer. What he heard was: “I want to be a marine biologist, a politician, a doctor.” I felt proud to see that shift in culture, but also knowing that it was happening in a practical way, where those students are being supported in working towards those goals.

Our new 6th form opens this year and we’re developing a programme that includes a strong enrichment element, including art, music and exposure to corporate environments, because part of the preparation these young people need is to understand that success will put them in unfamiliar surroundings. 

We measure our success not just by GCSE scores but by how many of our students have gone onto Russell Group universities. If you walk around the corridors and ask students if they plan on going to university, 99 per cent of them will say yes. 

But you cannot expect to go into a university environment and expect to pass an admissions interview by saying “innit” and “yeah bruv”. It’s not going to work. Rightly or wrongly, you will be expected to present yourself in a certain way. We’re asking our students to move from a very diverse community with a high ethnic minority population (more often than not on very low incomes) into an environment that is almost exclusively White middle to upper class.

For you to be successful in that environment, you need to know the cultural cues and social etiquette of that environment. Otherwise you’re going to feel marginalised. We’ll help prepare them for this, so in April, we hope that a number of our year 11 students will be spending three days on a residential course at Royal Holloway experiencing campus life first-hand.

Of course we have high expectations of our staff too. At the beginning of the school year we launched our Instructional Leadership model, where every teacher is observed at least once a week and then has a developmental follow-up coaching session to identify the next “action step” in moving towards outstanding. This is non-judgemental and focused on practical ideas to improve classroom teaching. There’s no silver bullet in education, but everything stems from high expectations and pure hard work.

  • Matt Jones played for a number of professional and semi-professional clubs, most notably at Southend United. He was a trainee with Arsenal and a former England schoolboy international. He is now headteacher of Globe Academy in London.


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