Two recent Ofsted reports highlight the characteristics of schools that have excelled against the odds. David Gordon examines the reports and looks at what governors can do to help their schools achieve and sustain excellence

Learning the secrets of schools that succeed against the odds

Ofsted has something of a reputation for being critical of schools without offering them the practical support they need to be able to learn from their mistakes and improve.

Although this may be the way the inspection process feels at the level of the individual school, on a more general level, Ofsted does attempt to encourage schools by drawing attention to the good practice it finds in reports that offer a good deal of practical advice to schools looking for hints and tips on how they could do things better.

Last year Ofsted published two reports which endeavoured to get to the bottom of how some schools in very challenging circumstances were able to overcome the disadvantages of their local communities and raise standards to such an extent that they were judged ‘outstanding’ in at least two successive inspections.

The first report showcased 12 secondary schools across England, while the most recent one carried out the same analysis on 20 outstanding primary schools.

Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Christine Gilbert, pointed out that many of the characteristics of successful practice are common to schools in all phases and that these include:

  • appointing staff of the highest quality and investing in and developing them;
  • treating children as individuals, supporting them well and expecting them to achieve well;
  • having staff who are passionate about finding ways of doing things better, with an unremitting focus on learning, development and progress;
  • demonstrating high-quality leadership to promote, support and sustain the drive to perfect teaching and maximize learning.

In the foreword to the report on primary schools, she said: ‘The schools described here show what can be done when dedicated professional teams place children at the center of their vocation. They ensure that every child matters. They succeed better than most in reducing the achievement gap between children from different backgrounds. The challenge for other schools is to do the same.’

School leaders have been encouraged to use both documents as the basis of discussions to support their own school improvement program. Governors can play their part in assessing how their schools measure up to those showcased in the reports – and in deciding what lessons there are to be learned from them. Ofsted particularly wants the schools that have been judged no better than ‘satisfactory’ to be challenged to improve by making such comparisons and analyzing what they need to do to become more like the showcased schools.

High expectations

A clear common factor across the successful primary and secondary schools emerges as having high expectations. These expectations come from strong values and they are set in a way that leaves everyone – pupils, parents, staff and governors – clear about what they are. It is then important that those high expectations are applied consistently and never relaxed.

In the primary schools, Ofsted detected what it called ‘a fundamental set of values centered on putting children first and faith in what children can achieve and teachers can do’. The inspectors found that the mission of transformational headteachers reflected an unswerving belief that all pupils can achieve high standards, given sufficient time and high-quality support.

Leading by example

The expectation of high standards applies throughout the life of the school – to pupils’ behavior as well as their achievements in and out of the classroom. But, if they are to meet those expectations, pupils need to see consistency in the way their school operates and staff who follow the same principles and can lead by example. ‘Demonstrate the behaviors you expect of others and show that you are prepared to do anything you might ask of them’ is the principle that works.

The school should have a consistent approach to its policies and organization, but staff must also be able to adopt consistent approaches to applying those policies – especially on behavior – as well as in their teaching and their basic daily practices.

Outstanding teaching and learning

It is obvious that the quality of teaching will have a strong bearing on the achievements of pupils and the reports go into plenty of detail on the kind of teaching that stimulates pupils and most encourages learning. To maintain these standards it is as important to believe that, just as all pupils can achieve high standards with the right support, so all teachers can teach to high standards with the right example, conditions and help.

With strong support themselves, good teachers can fulfil individual potential through providing outstanding teaching, rich opportunities for learning, and encouragement and support for each student.

The outstanding schools also demonstrate the need for teachers to learn all the time, and to be able to articulate what they do, why they do it and how effective it is.

Good communication

Another vital component of the successful school is good communication. Getting pupils and parents involved, engaged and committed so that they cannot later complain that they ‘did not know’ is cited as another common activity across the successful primary schools.

Strengthening home-school communication can lead to an impressive improvement in the degree of parental involvement. Working in partnership with other professionals also builds bridges with parents, families and communities.

Listening to pupils, valuing their views and reflecting and acting on what they say is another key element of the process.

Good internal communication is also vital, especially in secondary schools, which are often large, complex organizations. Many headteachers stress the importance of having strong systems to support effective communication. They emphasize the importance of repeating, rewording and reinforcing the key messages and priorities at every opportunity.

One headteacher spoke of the importance of a regular staff forum where staff are encouraged to talk frankly about things that are bothering them. He feels that that the openness of the culture and the willingness to communicate honestly is key to the wide range of initiatives that the school is involved in.

The outstanding schools tend to have a very strong team culture, which is so powerful that new staff are quickly assimilated into it. The school is seen as a joint venture that is as strong as its weakest link and both the quality and quantity of communication are considered important in maintaining this kind of culture.

Strong leadership

‘High-quality leadership is essential to promote, support and sustain the drive to perfect teaching and maximize learning in schools which face tough challenges.’ That was the conclusion of Christine Gilbert and a theme of both the Ofsted reports. ‘These schools show that excellence doesn’t happen by chance,’ she said. ‘It is due to the vision and conviction of their leaders and the inspired, effective teams they have built.’

The secondary report found that outstanding schools had outstanding and well-distributed leadership, with a committed head leading and inspiring a team. It identified what stood out in the headteachers of those schools, and was reflected by their colleagues and students, as characteristics such as:

  • clear and unshakeable principles and sense of purpose;
  • vigilance and visibility;
  • courage and conviction;
  • predisposition to immediate action, letting nothing slip;
  • insistence on consistency of approach, individually and across the organization;
  • drive and determination;
  • belief in people;
  • an ability to communicate;
  • leadership by example;
  • emotional intelligence;
  • tireless energy.

As well as identifying how schools can achieve excellence, the reports also look at the importance of making sure that excellence is sustained – something in which governors have a strong part to play. Monitoring and evaluating every aspect of a school’s performance is seen as a priority, and one which will closely involve governors.

Succession planning is another key area in which governors will be active – as well as the vital job of appointing the successor to an outstanding headteacher. The secondary report weighs up the options for governors, who may be torn between appointing from within, so as to secure the succession and have a seamless transition, and making an external appointment in the hope of maintaining momentum by introducing someone with new ideas and energy.

If they go for the external appointment, the governors need to be assured that the incoming headteacher really understands how the school works, as well as trying to match or exceed the quality of the previous head.

It is the strength of the culture and values of the school that will see it through the transition of a change of leadership. Ofsted believes the outstanding schools illustrate that these take time to establish and require constant nurturing but that – once embedded – they provide the sense of purpose, direction and self-belief that will ensure continuous improvement and see the school through any unpredicted challenges.

All schools have something to learn from looking at the approach of Ofsted’s schools that have made themselves outstanding against all the odds. Underlying this approach, the inspectors detected what they said is commonly described as ‘moral purpose’ and defined as ‘a fundamental set of values centered on putting children first and faith in what children can achieve and teachers can do’.

School governors will want to see how close their school comes to meeting that ideal.

Further information

This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2010

About the author: David Gordon is an author, writer, editor and qualified lecturer and has also been a parent governor. He has been the editor of School Governor Update since its launch in 2000