Ofsted’s lessons in what makes outstanding schools

Discipline and building pupils’ self-esteem are key to what makes schools excellent. But so is letting schools decide what is best, writes Dawn Forshaw

fter studying the work of “exceptional” secondary schools around the country, Ofsted has recently published a report that seeks to identify the characteristics that make these schools able to succeed despite operating in areas that present great challenge.

Ofsted claims to have discovered the Holy Grail of teaching how schools serving very challenging areas can become outstanding. The report, Twelve Outstanding Secondary Schools: Excelling against the odds, identifies the schools’ characteristics: they have all been rated outstanding in at least two inspections, they all serve communities where pupils come from poorer urban backgrounds and all have an above average proportion of pupils who receive free school meals.

Press articles covering the report focused on how these schools had excelled because of a return to traditional discipline, but this is a simplistic interpretation of the findings.

Several common features of the success of these schools included:

● Tracking pupil progress closely against targets.

● Supporting those children who slip behind.

● Giving high priority to appointing effective teachers.

● Providing continuous professional development, often being involved in the training of their own teachers.

Schools have clear discipline with consistent expectations and also nurture, praise and celebrate the success of students, which builds self-esteem and encourages students to excel. In turn, this drives up standards – it’s a win-win situation for everyone.

An obvious question springs to mind: if it is so easy to identify the characteristics of successful schools, why are so many schools still struggling to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged children in the UK?

There are two issues. The first relates to how Ofsted measures outstanding. Most of Ofsted’s focus is on how well the school performs in the standards that students achieve in external exams. In some instances during the period that they had made their improvements these schools had changed the profile of students who were entering the school. In one school the share of pupils from families in poverty had fallen from 49% at the beginning of the period to 30%, and was still falling.

Many studies have shown that in secondary schools the main factor determining outcome is student intake and we must ensure that we are measuring like with like before making sweeping judgements about school improvement.

The second issue relates to school leadership. In the report, Ofsted identifies quality of leadership as having the most influence in changing schools from failing to outstanding. Leadership in schools that are operating in challenging situations has to be resilient and focused and, in Ofsted’s words, capable of deciding which new initiatives are right for that school and which to ignore.

According to the report, schools should concentrate on doing the important things well and keeping it simple.

I am sure that most head teachers, and their counterparts in other caring professions, would welcome the opportunity to be freed from the many layers of unnecessary bureaucracy that we are lumbered with, in order to focus on doing the simple things well.

Dawn Forshaw is the head teacher at Wellfield Church Primary School, Burnley, Lancashire

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