A thought on creating a learning culture

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. – Henry David Thoreau

I have an issue with the concept of raising aspirations.

I disagree with the statement in itself: all children have aspirations. Low aspiration doesn’t exist, but a lack of knowledge to take aspirations and transform them into something concrete does exist. I see my role within school as simply that: to provide opportunities for students that they perhaps didn’t know existed. To take what isn’t yet known and present it as something that interests them, and at best outcome, reveal a potential pathway for their future. Not to put a tick in a cultural capital box, but to invite students to participate in a conversation that they may not have found themselves a part of before.

Why does this matter? It should, to you as a teacher, and to the student as an active participant in their own future. To make a dream attainable is the dream, isn’t it?

I’m very privileged to have a dedicated Father who took on the role of Governor for my Primary school. With a classroom teacher, he led the school’s first trip to London from our sleepy Felixstowe town: we visited the Science Museum, Planetarium, and walked up Oxford Street, and my Dad will still comment now on how many children had never strayed beyond Ipswich until that point. Their, and my eyes were opened, and we went to London every Christmas as children to see a musical, or the ballet, preceded by a meal and followed by ice cream and a chat about the performance afterwards. We read to him every evening, starting with Puddle Lane and closing with Lord of the Rings. Radio 4 was my Dad’s first choice in the car (followed by enough Crowded House and Genesis to make your ears bleed), and we talked and talked and talked about everything from literature to history to politics and back again.

During university, I took part in a reading programme and met children that didn’t own books, children that didn’t know what giraffes looked like, children that had never left Leicester or in some cases, their village. Imagine what they might have wanted to know, if they had known about it to begin with?

I believe that my Dad helped to form my love of what I call learning for learning’s sake. Once we show children how door-opening learning can be, how empowering knowing stuff is to so many aspects of their life, it really is transformational.

This all sounds very grand: what does that look like? Day to day, how do we build that into our schools, corridors, classrooms, conversations? Exactly that. By creating conversations about the world that we live in. Here are just some of the ways that I have tried to make aspirations concrete this year (without being in the building!):

  • Run a local university trip at the start of the year for Y11, to attend a conference that not only provides a taste of university life, but talks through the practical side of what is involved. Many students are motivated by the idea of attending university, but are daunted by the idea of debt and this really helped them to recognise the value of the experience, and reassure them that it is manageable through external funding. I ran this initial trip but then have run in-house enrichment and additional days to other local universities, as many of the students didn’t even realise in our central location, how many universities were on their doorstep. It’s useful to plan trips to Russell Group universities, but we need to be realistic in that this isn’t everyone’s dream. I certainly never considered going to Oxford or Cambridge; I wanted to attend a local university to my family after my Dad suffered a heart attack just before I started my course, and I also had a job that allowed me the flexibility to continue working through university. Opening up options should be exactly that- the more the better. Students attended four local universities last year, and we had one in to run a challenge day with KS3.
  • We attended our annual trip to Parliament, but then followed it up by inviting our local MP into school to take part in a series of Q&A with students from all year groups. Students were rigorous in their questions surrounding Brexit, and it was really valuable for them to discuss the choices and strategies that MPs have to make around voting, as well as how they welcome discussion and debate. Alberto Costa did a fantastic job of demonstrating to students that the very crux of his job was encouraging discussion, and their active participation in that motivated him to make change.
  • I made contact with local businesses to explore their career paths and opportunities for our students to see the reality of what a job would look like within that company: students visited Jaguar workshop over at Coventry, and this is definitely something I would like to expand upon next year. A great deal of our students go on to complete Apprenticeships with local companies, but it would be insightful for them to see the direction that they career might take in the future, so they have some sense of long term development plans.
  • I ran a weekly Lecture Programme for KS4, planning out the schedule for the year and sending out to parents to book a place for their child in advance. Speakers were in-house staff, staff from neighbouring schools, visiting academics from local universities and STEM ambassadors. The menu was incredibly varied, as I wanted to provide a combination of enriching the existing curriculum menu and extending beyond it. Our final programme looked like this:

All speakers delivered free of charge, and we had ninety students signed up beforehand. I have all attendees a Cornell notebook, and spent the first session outlining how to effectively take notes, listen actively, and that there would be an expectation to ask questions at the end of lectures. Students loved these, and several Y11 bought their own additional notebooks to use this format for revision.

As the first year closes, I’ve reflected on the format and want to refine a little for next year. We had a lot of drop off (I think some parents were more enthusiastic than their offspring!) and even more so as exams started, and so I would aim for a six month, Oct-Apr programme that avoids clashes with intervention or revision wherever possible. It was also evident that whilst there was a regular bunch of students, others also picked and chose who they wanted to see, and so this year, I aim to run with less lectures, but provide a range of subjects and students can sign up in advance. This will also help the continual process of refining and improving for our setting and context. I also plan to provide students with a certificate and acknowledgement of attending the programme if they sign up to all lectures, as I think it’s vital that this kind of openness to learning is rewarded.

What’s next in starting conversations? I would like to look at what that looks like within classrooms: how we use lesson time to make aspirations concrete and achievable. I feel that as teachers, we are the vital resource to enable students to recognise the options that lay before them, should they wish to take them up.

If you’d like to chat about starting up a lecture programme and I can help out beyond the advice here, please shout! I really enjoyed the whole process and welcome the chance to help others to set up something similar in other schools.


  1. This was incredibly helpful. Thank you so much for sharing with me on Twitter. It has definitely given me ideas for progress in my school and your comment about low aspiration really resonated with my beliefs.

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