What makes an outstanding school?
I was fortunate to visit a school recently which had come from being in ‘Special Measures’ to being judged as ‘Good with Outstanding Features’ in less than five years. A story like that makes me want to ask, ‘What was the method? What is the trick?’ If I could bottle it, I’d give the elixir to every school I know!
Of course, the answer is never quite that simple. There were a number of factors at work and some of the most important are well documented in research literature: a strong, visionary leader, supported by a committed, cohesive and complementary leadership team; a rigorous approach to collecting, analysing and acting on data; a commitment to identifying and meeting the needs of every individual pupil. These are essential – so obvious they roll off the tongue like easy clichés. Everyone is trying to do them and they are easier said than done.
So, when I ask myself ‘What is it that has made this school different, distinctive, special…?’ there is only one answer: the quality of collective thinking and action that went into defining and embedding the school’s ethos and values. I have known leadership teams that devoted only ‘so much’ time to this. The ethos and aims would actually be owned by the leadership and announced as policy. Force of personality would drive compliance, so teachers throughout the school would have to follow suit – wearing themselves out trying to impose a ‘received culture’ on twenty-five teenagers at a time.
At this school, the leadership team were determined about one thing: the culture in school would need to become stronger than the culture outside; but it would be grown, not imposed. They started by consulting the whole community, asking ‘What would this school need to look and feel like, to you, to justify being called ‘outstanding’?’ Faithful to the feedback from this consultation, they established some core values. Top of the list: Respect – for self, each other, community, humanity. There are five others.
What did the leadership team do next – and are still doing, every day? Model the values! They included Humility – any policy that doesn’t work for pupils is reviewed. Of course, there were struggles, a few partings-of-the-ways and a lot of incredibly hard work involved – and I can tell you about many other strategies another time – but the most important achievement of all is that the quality of teaching and learning and now high standards appear to be highly sustainable. This was no quick fix, easy-come, easy-go solution. The culture is embedded and everyone’s a winner.
I asked two students, aged 11, what was the best thing about the school. One said, “The lessons are really interesting.” The other said, “Everyone is really nice to you.” There you are! Two criteria for a sustainably outstanding school through the eyes of the people who count – and know they count!