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The issue with high expectations

If you are sanctioned for failing to meet an “expectation”, it is, in fact, a “condition”.

For a long time I have been interested in why deprivation and poverty are associated not just with academic outcomes, but with behavioural outcomes, and on my journey to understand this I came across a researcher called Sendhil Mullainathan and his work on the concept of scarcity. In his view, scarcity is a much more wide-ranging concept than poverty (an arbitrary threshold of income), i.e. we can have a scarcity of time, health, family support, relationships, cultural input, etc. - all of which can impact our outcomes. In describing the impact of scarcity he uses the analogy of packing into a smaller suitcase, and inspired by the #IncludEd2023 conference today, I’d like to start with this.

Two pupils are going away for a week, one packing into a large suitcase and one into a smaller suitcase. The suitcases can be seen as strict metaphors for disposable income (family income in this example), or in a broader way as availability of lots of different resources… but they both articulate a difference in experience.

The pupil with a smaller suitcase (i.e. scarcer resources) has a smaller capacity for items, therefore…

  • They are forced to operate with more conditions

Their items have to be folded smaller and packed away better than the pupil with a large suitcase. They have to make more “either/or” decisions on what to pack, whereas the pupil with the larger suitcase can pack more with less efficiency.

Could you list all the conditions / expectations children must meet to engage fully in your school? When we put pressure on parents/carers to immediately provide a new pair of school shoes, do we consider the scarcity that so many are living with? Less time because of childcare or multiple jobs, the cost and time of travel to get the shoes, the cost of the shoes, and what is the “or”? What isn’t being bought, what isn’t time being invested into?

  • Decisions have to be better!

Not only does the pupil packing into the smaller suitcase have to make better, not equal but better, decisions because there are more conditions, but any errors they make will cost more. If both forget their phone chargers, one may buy a new charger with relative ease, one may not. If packing is done badly and an item gets damaged, the same applies.

Living in scarcity means a “lack of slack” for mistakes - we all make mistakes but they don’t cost us or impact us all equally. There is very little flexibility for this within most school behaviour systems as the consequences appear superficially the same - the same detention time is given. The actual impact - socially, emotionally, educationally - may vary widely.

  • Triggering reminders of scarcity means we have less “bandwidth” for the process [not our inherent intelligence / cognitive capacity but how much of it is temporarily available]

There is research to support this - using food-related words in word-searches prompted dieters to be significantly slower in finding the following words - and the implications are profound. The implications are that the concentration, focus, and attention needed to actually pack the suitcase is more limited for those affected by scarcity when that has been consciously triggered (i.e. I wish I had a bigger suitcase like other people!) Wouldn’t that make this pupil more likely to make mistakes? Ones which cost more?


What prompted me to write about this today was hearing from two speakers who have experienced the care system. Consider the conditions we place on children in school, then consider the size of the suitcase a child in care is packing, i.e. the multiple levels of scarcity they may be experiencing. We have conditions on appearance and equipment - coat, black socks, bag, colour of pen, PE kit, pencil-case, etc. We have conditions on behaviour - a consistent requirement to accept adult authority and direction, regulate level of activity, attention, and emotional response. Even peers come with conditions for integration - they could be clothing, games consoles, cultural references, a similar capacity to spend time together outside of school. Some of these may feel impossible for a young person to achieve… Lemn Sissay OBE described it so viscerally today when he recalled “the smell of people with families”.

The speaker before Lemn was Jade Barnett, which is a name you will come across again in the future. Her educational journey travelled via two managed moves, a pupil referral unit, a move into care then a move into a care home at the opposite end of the country. Jade is a model of the most positive outcomes - today she held five hundred minds in her hand purely because she speaks with such intelligence, articulacy and power. But, as a child, she was forced into a situation where she was packing into a small suitcase. And the schooling system places yet more conditions on her, and others like her. Nowhere in her speech did she imply that those conditions were helpful; where many, such as Lemn, feel like they don’t belong already, the consequences of failure to meet these “expectations”/conditions must only reinforce that perception. At their least useful, they make engagement and access to education harder for some of the most vulnerable.

To return to more typical language of schooling, high expectations can no longer be a cover for just describing a very large number of conditions. And we need to stop painting such conditions as supportive to young people by their mere presence. That is to confuse equality of expectations/conditions with equity, but that isn’t equity at all. In reality, we may be both ignoring the smaller suitcase and expecting more of the child who is packing it.


High expectations of academic progress are crucial to all children fulfilling their potential, and these are genuinely “expectations” because they come without sanction. Without them children may not be taught to their full potential. Alongside that, adult understanding of the difficulties that some children face is a critical factor in making sure children belong and can thrive. For school and education leaders, it is worth considering what is within your control and sphere of influence to mitigate the impact of scarcity. Is the pupil premium grant being used to best effect? Also, please do consider when thinking about the rewards and sanctions in your school how do you make things fair for those living with scarcity?

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