What really makes ‘outstanding’ schools outstanding?

Fiona Aubrey-Smith, Head of Primary SSAT, writes…

With just 17% of primary schools currently rated as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, many schools ask how attainable this status is for the majority. Looking at what some of these schools actually do may help to provide an answer. At SSAT, the largest and most active network of schools across England, we invited members who have recently been visited by Ofsted to share what they thought contributed to their ‘outstanding’ status.

The new curriculum: local, national and international
A number of the schools inspected in the Spring term were asked what they had been doing to prepare for teaching the new national curriculum, due to be implemented from this September. ‘Outstanding’ schools described how they were already teaching from the new curriculum, adopting a variety of approaches and constantly evolving their school curriculum to incorporate local, national and international perspectives. Many cited their involvement in SSAT’s Redesigning Schooling campaign workshops with Dylan William as supporting their thinking in developing principled curriculum design.

Other schools talk about collaborating with local schools and stakeholders across their communities to ensure a local and relevant curriculum. Several schools undertake parent surveys to find out what trades and skills are already within the community, and then connect these with the curriculum work and projects undertaken by the children such that parental expertise becomes part of the classroom – expert demonstrators and skilled contributors.

In more rural areas this was often found through examples such as parents working with animals helping the children to plan and run their school farm.

In urban and city centre schools this was often found through KS2 enterprise projects, based for example on Dragon’s Den.

What was common across all of these schools was how the school had researched their community first, and found links to draw the community into the school, rather than depended on school visits and trips to connect children out into the wider local area.

An evidence led profession and culture of learning

Another line of questioning Ofsted used with these SSAT member schools was about their professional development programmes, and how they ensured that all teachers were continuously improving their teaching. The frequency with which themes such as developing increased understanding of effective pedagogy came up in conversation revealed the schools’ focus on this aspect. Many cited how useful programmes such as Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement (TEEP) are, and the importance of developing a whole-school culture of learning.

The schools all agreed the essential need for all teaching staff to seek out the latest research; many cited examples of sharing this across the school as vital in keeping momentum. Ways of disseminating research findings included:

  • Staffroom learning lunches (staff buffet lunch with named staff volunteers sharing a five-minute input on a research project, research finding, or research question)
  • Thinking-Thursday (staff take turns to pose a challenging question on the staffroom noticeboard and engage colleagues in thinking about and discussing a key issue)
  • Staff Research Journal (collated termly by staff each contributing a 1 page article on their own classroom action research work)
  • Research think-pair-share (action research findings applied by a colleague in another classroom, and then discussed with the original researching teacher, before sharing with the whole staff)

Transparent data

Many inspection reports from ‘outstanding’ schools cite the significance of teachers applying knowledge of their children in their planning. A typical inspector’s phrase is ‘Teaching is characterised particularly by a consistent approach to planning well-matched, challenging tasks to support each pupil’s learning’ (the words consistent, challenging and matched are very common in inspectors’ reports). Discussion with SSAT member schools revealed two other trends:

  • Joint ownership of assessment data – children, teachers and parents are all familiar with the children’s attainment, progress and targets throughout the year, not just at report intervals or parents meetings
  • Highly targeted use of data enables all those involved in teaching, planning, supporting, leading and managing school activity, to respond to issues quickly and efficiently.

For groups such as children receiving pupil premium funding, these ‘outstanding’ schools suggested:

  • Look first at your day-to-day teaching and what can be improved, before deciding on intervention strategies.
  • Analyse why children are underachieving, particularly in English and maths, and don’t confuse children receiving pupil premium with low-ability children.
  • Use your best teachers to deliver intervention groups; don’t just rely on TAs.
  • Track the impact of intervention groups during the intervention – don’t wait until it’s completed.
  • Assign a senior leader to manage and monitor pupil premium, and have regular 1:1s between them and class teachers about the PP children. Include this in performance management.
  • Capture evidence of impact throughout the year – case studies for each child.

Post-level assessment: progression, consistency and collaboration

Another common theme across schools recently has been in planning for post-level assessment, particularly in light of the curriculum changes underway. Add to this context a focus during recent Ofsted inspections on what is being done to develop and extend teacher subject knowledge (cf. the new curriculum), and we face a complex and challenging picture.

An example of progression and collaboration is how schools work with early years providers and secondary schools to ensure effective transitions. This raises a number of opportunities (rather than challenges – as these schools were keen to highlight) about progression all the way from EYFS to KS1, KS2 into KS3, including the importance of consistency of language in classroom assessments before and after transition phases, between year group changes and when working vertically and horizontally in subject sets. Where groups of schools are working together (eg across a pyramid or cluster), many cited a progression as a focus. While it was initially on sharing an understanding of assessment informed by subject knowledge and tracking progression, experience led to developing consistency across primary schools. Examples include moderating work samples, undertaking classroom observation and team teaching in order to develop and agree a consistent approach to assessment.

What matters most

Perhaps the most poignant of the key themes that emerged during these discussions was that ‘outstanding’ schools focus on children’s learning first and foremost and are unashamedly ruthless in prioritising that above everything else. The principle and practice of shared ownership of improvement in the quality of teaching across the school came up a number of times.

This showed up in the way working groups and roles within the school are described. Even small schools refer to their leaders as directors of learning, with other roles described as ‘data innovator’ for example instead of assessment manager. There is a very clear trend in these schools towards targeting roles towards specific outcomes – making staff members project leaders rather than managers of traditional areas. This is just an indication of how schools who are working through all the layers and facets of their development to ensure that all variables are aligned with their overarching vision: to improve children’s learning first, second, third and last.

As Dame Vicki Paterson, executive headteacher of three outstanding schools, said at the SSAT National Conference in December, ‘We don’t respond to Ofsted. We respond to children. If we take care of children and their learning, then Ofsted will take care of itself. In my experience, across three schools, that’s what works for us’ .

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