"I had a job in a catering company putting cherries on grapefruits. I did not want to spend the rest of my life putting cherries on grapefruits."

Professor Sonia Blandford is Founder and CEO of Achievement for All and one of the UK's leading practitioners of education. Sonia is passionate about raising the aspirations and improving the attainment of all children and young people regardless of their background or need. She was named in the 2016 Debrett's list of the Top 500 Most Influential People in the UK.

Sonia grew up on the Allied Estate in Hounslow and was the first member of her family to pursue education beyond the age of 14. She was also the first to attend university.

"My sister and I both started work at 12. It was real work: every evening and all weekend. From 14 we both had to pay our way at home. At 16 I failed all but two O levels. My mum was always poorly, emotionally and physically. She always liked cuddly toys - for her, not for us. Our parents never took us anywhere. So at 15 my sister and I saved up and bought a moped. It was illegal. But it let us go everywhere. My mum had been collecting Green Shield stamps and when she had enough she told me to go and collect a massive stuffed dog with the stamps. So I went on my moped and got the stuffed dog for her. On the way back I thought that O Levels were just like Green Shield stamps: they let you get whatever you want. So I decided to go back to school. I had a job in a catering company putting cherries on grapefruits. I did not want to spend the rest of my life putting cherries on grapefruits."

Sonia is currently Professor of Education and Social Enterprise at the London Centre for Leadership in Learning at the Institute of Education, and Honorary Professor of Education, University of Warwick. She has published over 150 articles, columns and books on educational leadership, special educational needs, teaching and learning, professional development and music education. She has recently written four books showcasing the work of the charity – Take the lead, Love to teach, Make school better and Don’t like Mondays? The books are now available in bookshops or from http://www.johncattbookshop.com. Sonia is an advisor to the UK government, European Commission and several international governments.

She has two Masters (music and education), and was among the first to complete the UK inaugural Doctor of Education (EdD) programme at the University of Bristol. She went on to become Pro-Vice Chancellor and Dean of Education at Canterbury Christchurch University.

Sonia began her career as a music teacher and has worked in primary and secondary schools across the UK. She has been actively involved in creating and sustaining 7 charities that continue to provide educational, social and artistic opportunities for local and national communities including The Corsham Windband Association (1981 - Founder), Teach First (2002 - Founding Ambassador), and National Orchestra for All (2011 - Founding Adviser).

Sonia is married with two daughters and lives in Newbury.

What we have demonstrated is that having high aspirations for learners with SEND is not just wishful thinking, it's very real. By supporting high quality teaching and learning, involving parents every step of the way, and working on behaviour, attendance and bullying, these children can perform just as well as their peers - better even.

Too often in the past low expectations have been placed on students with SEN and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The evidence to date from Achievement for All demonstrates what can be achieved through taking a whole school focused approach. There is a critical link between providing senior level leadership alongside excellent teaching practice, challenging the expectations for children with special educational needs