Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The cult of 'outstanding'

What is 'outstanding'? Are all OFSTED outstanding schools really that?
Are Heads of OFSTED outstanding schools 'outstanding Headteachers'?

I guess that all depends on your definition of 'outstanding' and, of course, those that set the definition at OFSTED would argue that schools get the labels that they deserve. My own view is that some schools with the top rating do not meet my own simple definition of outstanding and, indeed, OFSTED have themselves sought to address the fact that there were perceived to be too many outstanding schools.

My own most recent school - at which I was Head for six years - held (and holds) the outstanding label.
Did I judge us to be an 'outstanding' school?
Was I an 'outstanding' Head?
No to both (by my definition).

Overall effectiveness: the quality of education provided in the school         (School Inspection Handbook: April 2014)
Teaching is outstanding and, together with a rich and relevant curriculum, contributes to outstanding learning and achievement, significant growth in students’ knowledge, and excellent attitudes to learning. Exceptionally, achievement may be good and rapidly improving.
Pupils, and particular groups of pupils, have excellent educational experiences at school and these ensure that they are very well equipped for the next stage of their education, training or employment.
There is excellent practice which ensures that all pupils have high levels of literacy appropriate to their age.
The school’s practice consistently reflects the highest expectations of staff and the highest aspirations for pupils, including disabled pupils and those with special educational needs.
Best practice is spread effectively in a drive for continuous improvement.
Other principal aspects of the school’s work are good or outstanding.
The school’s thoughtful and wide-ranging promotion of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and their physical well-being enables them to thrive in a supportive, highly cohesive learning community.

There is little to disagree with in this as an aspiration (from my perspective) although, as is constantly debated on Twitter, there is much that is open to interpretation, including definitions of 'learning' and the quality of teaching. For this reason, among others, data often leads the 'outstanding' grade and doesn't always require "excellent educational experiences" to prevail nor "excellent practice" to be "spread effectively in a drive for continual improvement."

My own interpretation of 'outstanding' does not so much disagree with the OFSTED definition; rather, it is something that I believe should supplement, if not headline and lead, it.

A simple definition/questions
Some other words/definitions for outstanding
Does this school stand out from others? How does it?
Does it do things that others could learn from (& possibly apply in their own context)?
Standing out among others of its kind;
Prominent, remarkable;
Superior to others of its kind;
Distinguished, excellent

Whilst there will be many examples of schools that can positively answer the questions above and (therefore?) meet the OFSTED definition also, there are inevitably schools - maybe a very small number? - who benefit from excellent data and receive the grading without doing much that others could learn from.

How to stand out from the crowd - and do things that others could learn from

This section is closely linked to my previous (and first) post on developing a school vision; the overview there contains a summary of what could make a school truly 'outstanding'. However, this can't happen at all or have longevity, lasting beyond the tenure of any particular leadership team, without the creation of a culture.

This culture is based upon a belief that the whole school team is fundamental to success; any leader (and football manager for that matter) is only as good as their team; 'outstanding' teachers who become Heads need to recognise that it doesn't always come as easy to others and/or that people have a range of personal commitments and attitudes to work. In developing this approach, it is those latter points that are hardest to overcome.

The ingredients
The ideas summarised here arise, as all our ideas do, from a number of sources. Those that I've directly learnt from are the amazing Jim 'Taming Tigers*' Lawless (@jim_lawless), an inspiring speaker at the NCTL 'Seizing Success' 2013 conference, and Matthew Syed's 'Bounce'.

  • Together Everyone Achieves More - value, maximise talents, enable, empower, support, challenge
  • A ‘Growth Mindset’: adults and pupils who want to be the best that they can be (reach their potential), who want to continuously improve, aim to master their craft and do not feel limited by ideas of fixed ability or talent.
  • A shared belief in continual improvement in which staff enjoy the professional responsibility of collaborating to (action) research & develop the most effective practice. (Contrasts with a top-down approach in which staff grudgingly carry out - or not - what they are told to do).
  • A bold, ambitious goal* to be the best that we can be (individually and collectively).
  • Question all that you do*: Rip up your rule-book.  A willingness to look critically at all that we do in the context of what we are trying to achieve. (Is the education that we provide fit for purpose?)

With this culture in place, we will be more likely to ensure that we will not only do the ‘conventional’ excellently ….but that we will….

Always be innovative to seek greater effectiveness, excellence & enjoyment (beyond the conventional).

Regarding innovation, Michael Cladingbowl, OFSTED's National Director of Schools, commented:
"I (also) worry that some schools are far too cautious about innovating to raise standards because of the imminent arrival of Ofsted. As long as they do the basic (conventional) things right, we need more schools to innovate not fewer; innovation is often, if not always, a feature of outstanding schools and school systems. Look at the way mathematics is taught in Shanghai – different and very successful."

The Guardian: Teacher Network             Friday 7 March 2014

It is by adopting this approach that I believe that we can truly 'stand out'; the data and other outcomes will follow and, without chasing the status, the OFSTED label will too...

...but nobody said it was easy!

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