During a recent school Inset day, I heard a teacher addressing his own staff with a very strident warning: that scrutinising Ofsted ‘outstanding’ descriptors was actually a fruitless exercise. His comments gained support from his staff and he went on to say that school improvement was linked more to ‘growing’ a staffroom of morale ‘lifters’ rather than morale ‘hoovers’. He felt that unpicking Ofsted statements had its place only when teachers were self-reflective enough to fully understand the nature of day-to-day challenge in the classroom.

Is he right? Can teachers self-consciously design lessons to fulfil Ofsted criteria or is the journey to ‘outstanding’ more complex than that?

Certainly, there has never been so much support around for charting the routes towards excellence. This table gives a glimpse of some of the tools now at our disposal. I have included brief extracts from: Ofsted’s Evaluation Schedule for Schools; the National Strategies’ CQS and the New Ofsted Framework and Practical Strategies to Support the Whole-school Development of AfL with APP; and NACE’s What is Good Teaching? (WIGT).

There are various patterns here which teachers may find very useful in highlighting developmental priorities, for example the emphasis on independent learning, pupil empowerment and understanding of the next steps. Ofsted makes the link between effective teaching interventions and the facilitation of high-quality learning. There is clearly the need for G&T learners to use personalised success criteria and even extend ambitions beyond any set boundary, as a matter of routine.

Yet, if it was as simple as analysing statements and unearthing ‘answers’ most teachers would be at ease about reaching supposedly ‘outstanding’ levels on a regular basis. To reflect upon ‘what’ is an outstanding lesson has to go in tandem with much more thinking about ‘how’ to get there. Otherwise teachers can be left debating forever the difference between ‘the teaching is consistently effective’ (‘good’, according to Ofsted) with ‘teaching is at least good and much is outstanding’ (Ofsted’s ‘outstanding’ criteria).

Developing pedagogical skills

Barry Hymer (2009) states that three questions are particularly important in guiding learners’ enquiries:

  1. Where shall I go?
  2. Which routes do I know?
  3. And how can I tell when I’m there?

This could equally apply to the processes teachers have to go through in refining and developing their skills. The extracts included here from across the four charts should certainly help schools understand ‘where shall I go?’ and to clarify the nature of excellence in day-to-day learning situations, but what about the other two questions? The teacher I heard speaking with such passion was really addressing himself to these: how can we understand more about how to improve teaching and learning and how do we know when we have improved?

I asked a selection of teachers with proven records of success to tell me how they had found ‘routes’ to improvement. Although only an impromptu and fairly random sample, the answers may prove worthy of discussion as schools try to form the right kinds of strategies to stimulate the journey towards ‘outstanding’. I have organised the replies into two columns (see box), one for specific teaching and learning points and the other for wider influences. This is an informal aid to discussion of course, rather than generalisable research.


Not surprisingly, self-reflection was mentioned more times than anything else. Most teachers I have worked with who have become ‘outstanding’ by anyone’s definition, have rigorously asked questions of their own practice, and are equipped with sensitive enough ‘antennae’ to know when a lesson is succeeding or needs a change of direction. In addition, questions which prompt further thinking, questions which are devised by the pupils and questions which ask for evaluation or analysis had been adopted at some point in the teachers’ widening toolkit of skills (See issue 75 of G&T Update, and Moving up a level: using questions to improve learning in this issue, for ideas on improving questioning skills in the classroom). In fact, a common strand in all the answers was a near restless sense of urgency about finding routes forward – an intrinsic need to learn – rather than a response to extrinsic pressure. No one actually mentioned Ofsted or meeting targets but there was a regular acknowledgement of the importance of the wider influences I have listed in the box. Many teachers have taken enormous strides forward, not just from their own self-reflection, but from formal coaching systems, from mentoring, from having to present and articulate ideas in front of colleagues and from meta-cognitive talk in non-threatening cultures. This day-to-day thinking seems to have sharpened the self-reflective processes which have led to a more instinctive self-evaluation, prompting both action and change. Without it, it was felt the daily routines could drift into teaching from the middle, punctuated by last-minute preparations to enhance challenge. Does that sound familiar?

It may be much harder to move towards excellence in a culture where a teacher is unable to share ideas, promote change or take risks. Teachers do seem to feel that the wider influences provide a culture within which individual talents can grow. At this point the matrices pointing out end goals have significantly added to our understanding of what is good teaching and learning, particularly where G&T learners are concerned since it is the ‘outstanding’ lessons which most includes them in new areas of challenge; but it is the wider influences listed above that have actually inspired enquiry and growth. For some teachers with a very strong intrinsic love of learning, the ceiling of ambitions implied by ‘outstanding’ statements would not be enough, as the learning journey would need to continue – not that anyone is advocating ‘outstanding plus’ as a grade!

However, for some teachers, and particularly for those who can understand the ‘exemplary’ and ‘outstanding’ statements fully but cannot quite visualise what this means in a classroom situation, further strategies may be needed, which could include the following:

Peer observation with a focus
This has the advantage of being less threatening than an Ofsted observation and can be useful even if colleagues watch only sections of lessons; but there must be a chosen focus and the observer must be able to get their colleague reflecting upon hard-edged issues. Follow-up is essential, with observations planned as part of an improvement cycle. If possible, it is a good idea to watch advanced skills teachers or ‘excellent’ teachers, but only with some sort of clarity of how the learning experience will be shared or used.

Coaching with an external expert
This has the advantage of expertise being used from outside your usual context. This brings experience of the big picture and some teachers prefer a new ‘voice’. However, teachers have to be ready for the coaching process and genuine hard work and reflection between sessions. There is always a cost to external support too and the benefits have to be weighed up.

Student voice
Some schools are successfully incorporating student views on learning and challenge via student research, student focus groups and observations. Listening to students as a way of increasing the level of challenge is often mentioned as essential for ongoing improvement. It was listed as a significant aspect of building deeper learning by the National Strategies in the Handbook for Leading Teachers for Gifted and Talented Education. A disadvantage, however, is that what the students say can be a jolt or shock! In addition, it needs to be part of responsible contributions students themselves are making to improve the school; they need to understand their own contributions to learning rather than simply making ‘consumer’ comments.

Formal appraisal
Where teachers have faith in the judgements made upon them, there are numerous examples of improvements being made thanks to line manager advice.

External courses
Inspiration, signposting and reassurance from courses run by local authorities or independent providers can significantly support individual CPD. There are more doubts about the value across the school and the effectiveness of cascading, leading to an upturn in internal or cluster Inset training. Some teachers study to gain accreditation in further specific qualifications.

This is a growing way of contributing to the journey towards ‘outstanding’ as the richness of experiences can be shared and there may be some funding for Inset providers. However, there can be issues about schools sharing the same priorities for G&T or agreed follow-up strategies. Some schools with specialist status in gifted and talented education are launching outreach work and running conferences, sometimes cross-phase.

If some or any of the strategies above are having an impact then the summative statements from Ofsted/DCSF and NACE start to have a more formative role to play in terms of progression and improvement and the WIGT is particularly useful in sharing development advice with teachers and clarifying the next steps. Thus, the ‘which routes do I know?’ question begins to be addressed.

Whatever conclusions come out of this, it is likely that the statements of ‘outstanding’ would help teachers explore their CPD needs by highlighting potential next steps like these:

  • Is the teacher intervening with the most able pupils, to prompt further higher-order thinking?
  • Do G&T learners have the chance to set their own ambitious targets?
  • Has there been a move towards negotiated, personalised success criteria?

I have had the pleasure of working with teachers who have experienced mindset changes from stimulus provided by colleagues, heads or consultants. Long-term, this can be more important than any new knowledge gained. For example, one G&T lead teacher introduced colleagues to ‘planning from the top’, another to starting every lesson with pupils devising questions. The kinds of specific questions exemplified above can then make more sense if a challenging ethos has been established.

Hard work

The application of new mindsets, synthesising the benefits of training and internalising the awareness of statements of ‘outstanding’ is hard work. When asked about how they made improvements, the teachers often mentioned self-reflection but were more modest about outlining the level of hard work needed over many years to constantly adapt units of learning when the content or methodology was found wanting.

However, to address Barry Hymer’s third point about knowing ‘when you get there’, self-awareness may play its part but some teachers actually appreciate the external visits, the internal observations and the specific advice. It contributes to their plotting of their own progress and reaching of a more intrinsic notion of growing excellence which goes above and beyond any statement or grade. Thus, if a lesson is disappointing the resilience is there to understand why it happened and the motivation to doggedly move on!

Overall, the most successful strategy for moving towards ‘outstanding’, in schools in which I’ve supported G&T education, is very much the ‘growth mindset’ (see Carol Dweck’s Self Theories). Through a combination of the CPD explored above, a school improvement culture starts to influence all the staff, though it needs rigorous and focused leadership for this to happen. There is more of a chance then that the desire to grow, learn and take risks becomes more prevalent and building the opportunity to become ‘outstanding’ becomes essential.

Bob Cox is an independent learning consultant and co-author of Able, Gifted and Talented Learning in English, published by Tribal Publishing. For more information see