Do you think yours can become an outstanding school? Dave Weston gives advice on helping schools reach the highest level at Ofsted, through strong leadership

Every primary head aspires for an outstanding judgement from an Ofsted inspection. Public acknowledgement of excellence is important to many professionals and local communities. Ofsted should allow every school, regardless of socio-economic background or resources, the opportunity to achieve an outstanding grading. There is an active debate as to whether raw data is the only important indicator that inspectors use to make overall judgements. Ofsted would argue that CVAs and KS results are only part of the evidence base which is used to judge schools, but there is alternative evidence to show a close correlation between high test scores and overall Ofsted gradings.

In the school year 2006-07, the proportion of primary schools graded as outstanding by Ofsted was 14%, with 46% graded as good. A further 34% were considered to be satisfactory and around 5% of schools were put into a category as inadequate or special measures. Many of the schools classified as good could be moved into the outstanding category with slightly better data, a more confident, evaluative SEF and a richer, more stimulating curriculum.

It is important for schools and their heads to adapt effectively as the wider agenda changes and as the Ofsted framework evolves. Current issues include the Every Child Matters agenda, the development of a better curriculum and improved community cohesion – no small task.

A key aspect of an outstanding primary school is excellent leadership, which refers to the headteacher, senior leadership team and the governing body, and that to be outstanding, all aspects of leadership should be at least rated good. The key indicators of outstanding leadership, paraphrased from Ofsted, are that:

  • the leadership team and governors have a consistent vision and are fully committed to setting a clear direction for the success of the school
  • understanding of staff roles and effective teamwork
  • the governors rigorously evaluate the work of the school whenever it proves necessary
  •  the leadership team carefully analyse school data and trends, and as a result identify priorities and implement the appropriate strategies for school improvement to ensure high standards of attainment
  • stakeholder groups are fully informed and involved in the development of the school.

In one outstanding primary school, Ofsted commented that ‘consultation, collaboration and partnership are watchwords’ in the success of the school. In another school, Ofsted reported that ‘a crucial factor in the school’s success is the outstanding leadership of the headteacher.’

The 2003 Ofsted framework looked how leaders ‘influence and motivate, create effective teams, encourage an inclusive culture and provide good role models for other staff and pupils.’ Ofsted stressed the importance of the school leadership having very effective self-evaluation. In another outstanding primary school the Ofsted report commented that ‘The headteacher knows the strengths and weaknesses very well. This is evident in the very good quality of the school’s self-evaluation. Excellent systems are in place to check the school’s effectiveness of all that goes on.’

Therefore, the leadership of the head, senior leadership team and governors is crucial in the development of a successful school. The governance of a school should be creative and dynamic in reflecting on performance, promoting effective change and in developing strong and positive links with the local community. The key strategies that you can follow to achieve outstanding leadership will include the following:

  • ensuring that the school achieves the highest possible standards in all areas of the school’s work
  • reflective, self-critical and creative leadership
  • having a clear vision for the school in the future so that all staff know what they are working towards
  • having clear strategic thinking
  • placing a high priority in appointing quality staff, developing their skills and deploying them to best effect
  • developing procedures and interventions that are effective and unbeauracratic
  • showing confidence, being well-informed and flexible enough to cope with new initiatives and challenges
  • having comprehensive and analytical assessment procedures which give the school a very clear insight into pupils’ progress across the school, particularly in the core subjects and for the achievement of different groups
  • having high aspirations and a positive outlook towards the future.

Headteachers in some of the successful primary schools which were judged as outstanding had a similar approach to the curriculum: ‘They saw the curriculum as a means for ensuring the vision, involved themselves actively in managing it and, at the same time, created a strong sense of teamwork by involving the staff in discussion and decision-making.’ [The Curriculum in Successful Primary Schools. Ofsted report (p7), HMI 553, Oct 2002.]

To support an overall outstanding judgment, a primary school should have a curriculum which is rated at least good in all major respects and is exemplary in a number of areas. Ofsted states that an outstanding curriculum will be broad, balanced and innovative, and encourages very high standards of attainment.

In the Ofsted framework inspectors are encouraged to look out for schools in which most pupils participate effectively and keenly in a wide range of extra-curricular activities of exceptional quality. Outstanding resources and accommodation should be developed to support school initiatives that go beyond formal curriculum requirements. Community links should make a significant contribution to pupils’ achievement and to school improvement.

The  curriculum in an outstanding school will:

  • be imaginative and creative, and will encourage high achievement using the opportunities in the ‘excellence and enjoyment’ agenda
  • have areas of learning interlinked without losing their discrete nature, thus providing a wide range of connected learning activities
  • be evaluated rigorously and will be carefully managed to meet changing requirements
  • include activities which are organised imaginatively and resourced to provide stimulating learning opportunities
  • provide an impressive range of formal and informal links with feeder providers and the next schools attended by the pupils. These links will significantly enhance the range of activities for pupils and enable staff to share and extend their expertise with others.

Teaching and learning
The third key area in Ofsted inspection is teaching and learning, including the Foundation Stage (which now has its own section in Ofsted reports, looking at the six aspects of early learning). To get an overall outstanding judgment, teaching should be at least good in all major respects and exemplary in significant elements, and as a result learners succeed and make exceptionally good progress. To receive an outstanding grade for teaching and learning, a school must ensure that lessons are taught in an inspiring and highly-effective way.

Teaching should be stimulating, enthusiastic and consistently challenging. Teachers should have good subject knowledge, how to teach it and how pupils learn. There should be excellent relationships in the classrooms and good pupil behaviour should enable effective learning to take place. Pupils should be helped to judge the success of their own work and set targets for improvement.

Standards of achievement
To be an outstanding school, standards achieved should include at least good progress in all major respects as reflected in contextual added value measures. The use of data should be analytical and based on progress measures rather than raw attainment. Standards should show that pupils consistently work at or near their capacity, and make and sustain comprehensive gains in their learning. Almost all pupils should achieve highly and progress at a good rate in relation to their capabilities and earlier attainment (as reflected in value-added measures). At least two levels of progress should be achieved between KS 1 and KS 2 in English and maths. This includes celebrating SEN pupils moving from Level 1 to Level 3.

Indicators of outstanding practice

  • A CVA measure of over 100 in primary schools; in infants schools, progress from entry to end of KS 1 is rated at least ‘good’.
  • Almost all pupils make good progress in terms of achieving 2 levels of progress from KS 1 to KS 2.
  • Standards of achievement rated at least ‘good’.
  • Internal monitoring indicates that teaching and learning is at least ‘good’ in all classes, and sometimes ‘outstanding’.
  • The curriculum is both very broad and creative, and motivates pupils to achieve their best.
  • Pupil attendance is at least as good as the national average and often well above it.
  • Pupil behaviour is good and supports effective teaching.
  • The development of the school is owned by the whole-school community and all stakeholders are involved in regular reviews.

Tips for heads

  • Ensure that everyone in the school knows of the ambition to become rated an outstanding school.
  • Ensure that the SEF is kept up to date with latest data (including any internal assessments) and that the document is evaluative and reflects clearly the impact of intervention strategies. If there are areas the school believes (and has evidence to support that view) are outstanding, the headteacher should grade the school as outstanding in the SEF. Ofsted sometimes say that schools are too modest in judging themselves.
  • Ensure that there is an emphasis on quality first teaching and that regular assessment informs future planning.
  • Ensure that all leaders in the school are fully involved in school self-evaluation. It is important to ensure that the governors are rigorous in the evaluation of the school.
  • Ensure that the curriculum is creative, imaginative and based on active learning, with the pupils involved in their own learning agenda.
  • Ensure that the whole-school community value progress rather than raw attainment as the key indicator of school improvement.
  • Ensure that the school is open-minded, welcoming and forward-looking.

To move a school from a rating of good to outstanding is a challenging task for a headteacher and there is a close link between standards of attainment, high-quality teaching and learning and effective self-evaluation. Ofsted considers that best practice in school improvement is based on ensuring:

  • Self-evaluation is integral to the culture of an organisation so that staff are committed and fully involved.
  • Self-evaluation is clearly built into management systems, and external inspection validates the view of the school and does not replace rigorous internal review.
  • Headteachers and other leaders use a range of performance indicators to enhance the quality of self-evaluation.
  • Self-evaluation reflects the wider curriculum rather than just the core curriculum.
  • The headteacher leads the self-evaluation so as to gain an accurate understanding of strengths and weaknesses.

Primary schools should achieve the best possible CVA, showing progress and rigorous self-evaluation  closely linked to improvement. The implementation of these priorities should help aspiring schools on the difficult but achievable journey from good to outstanding.

Dave Weston is a school improvement partner