Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

“We’ll develop your potential!”....really?

I had a go at googling ‘college’ and ‘potential’ recently but had to give up.

Couldn’t cope, totally overwhelmed.

It’s actually a lot more manageable to search for colleges that don’t mention your potential right up front.

The promise is almost universal: FE colleges, Cambridge colleges, Oxford colleges… I found even referenced your ‘God-given potential’.

None of these places know you, they haven’t even met you, they wouldn’t recognise you in the street but despite all that they’re quite convinced you have this magical ingredient: potential.

How is it possible to know nothing about someone but know they have potential?

The answer has to be that we know it as a matter of definition, not as a matter of experience. If I hand you a seed perhaps you won’t be able to tell what plant it’s from but you’ll still know that given the right conditions it’ll grow and flourish. If you know it’s a seed, you know it grows and it’s the same, apparently, with people.

It’s how the nation’s colleges must be thinking about the students they aim to attract. By virtue of being human, students must, by definition, have potential so all a college has to do is provide the right conditions for the human seed to flourish: appropriate teaching, pastoral care, accessible resources and so on.

From a seed’s point of view maybe there’s not a lot more to ask for. But how does it look if the seed in question happens to be a human being? If a college is using ‘potential’ to attract students in its external publicity, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect there is some follow-up once you’ve enrolled and crossed the threshold?

If a college took its own marketing seriously what would it look like?

The most fundamental thing would be that every member of the college’s staff would understand the importance played by self-confidence and self-belief in success.

Staff behaviour would routinely demonstrate knowledge of and compliance with a Johari window based on belief rather than knowledge:


Others believe in you



Others don't believe in you



Staff would also understand that potential is not the same thing as ability.

Students are often regarded as having potential because they appear to their teachers to be abler than their peers. This may well be a sign of some inner potential beginning to realise itself but it’s only spotted because it happens to align with standards the college thinks are important.

After all, there’s rarely any such thing as pure achievement inside a college; it’s always achievement in the things the college considers important according to criteria the college sets, or more likely has adopted from an awarding body.

So if potential is being taken seriously, college staff will have come to a view on what the signs of intrinsic potential are: curiosity, perhaps, and/or an idiosyncratic view of the world.

They will look for these things in their students and instead of dismissing them as beside the point of the lesson plan or irrelevant to the assessment objectives, they’ll take them seriously as the first shoots of genuine individual flourishing.

And there’s a duty for senior management in all this too. There’s no better way of quickening potential than by exciting students with the infinite potential of the world around them.

But the routine of teaching conspires against this as do both the pressure teachers are often under to achieve great examination results and the syllabuses and specifications which can all too easily seem to place a barbed-wire fence around imagination.

So teachers should be able to expect that the college’s senior management are giving thought through the support, training and other benefits they provide as to how best they can nurture the curiosity, enthusiasm and the potential of their own staff.

Tall order? Well whose idea was it to put the word ‘potential’ so prominently on the college’s home page??

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

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