Outstanding school FAQs

Written by: HTU | Published:

What is it that headteachers at outstanding schools focus on? Fergal Roche takes a look.

What is the difference between headteachers at outstanding primary schools and those at other schools, in terms of what they focus upon? 

Is there some kind of alchemy – a mix of talent, knowledge and skill – that they use to create amazing outcomes in their schools?

Well, probably not. You don’t need me to tell you that being outstanding is not easy to define. It takes many different forms, across many different school settings. 

However, when we consider the type of information headteachers at “outstanding” schools are searching for on The Key, compared with their colleagues at “good” schools, it is possible to see some clues as to what a successful school improvement journey looks like.

You might expect that the major differences would be in areas such as lesson observation or the primary curriculum, but that is not the case. Some of the most significant asymmetry in interest levels relates to pastoral issues such as safeguarding and attendance. There is a much higher interest in ways of managing absence. 

There is also a strong tendency for leaders at outstanding schools to take relatively more interest in content relating to pupils’ lives beyond the school. Whether it is the transition from primary to secondary, or work-related learning, leaders at outstanding schools are spending more of their time reading about how their pupils develop and progress once they have left their school.

The leadership team in schools that have reached the outstanding grade also appears to be more focused on effective financial management. As schools stand more solidly on their own two feet, the role of the finance staff takes on more and more significance. School leaders in good and outstanding schools seem more focused on scanning their environments. 

For that reason, I am not surprised that they are more interested in reading or asking about government proposals, policies and reports. Perhaps wariness has become one of the core strengths of today’s outstanding school leaders. 

These are just a few examples of the specific areas of focus that are more pronounced among leaders at the country’s outstanding schools. When we start to look back towards the beginning of the journey, at the relative focus of leaders at schools that are judged unsatisfactory, you can see that their focus is quite different. 

So what are leaders at the beginning of their school improvement journey prioritising? When it comes to areas such as behaviour management, whole-school improvement planning, and developing teaching practice, leaders at schools judged to be unsatisfactory or requiring improvement are much more likely to be active. 

You get the impression of leaders in highly pressurised circumstances, laying the foundations for school improvement and setting the right climate for success. 

Our data shows that school leaders in struggling schools are significantly more likely to ask a question on behavioural issues, such as exclusions or bullying, than those in schools judged good and outstanding.

Once behaviour is under control, struggling schools can move swiftly on to tackling underperformance and capability. A year ago, at the school in Lambeth where I am chair of governors, we set ourselves the ambitious target of raising the standard of teaching from less than 

60 per cent of lessons judged good and outstanding to 82 per cent by the summer term.

We borrowed an additional member of the senior leadership team from another school to spend half her time working with teachers to improve their practice. 

Having spent so much effort worrying about behaviour in the two previous years, responding to numerous requests to attend exclusion or review panels, we then broadened our focus. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, leaders at schools in difficult circumstances spend a proportionately higher amount of their time on staffing issues. In areas of the website such as interview questions and job descriptions, leaders at schools judged to be unsatisfactory are significantly more engaged. 

Are they simply struggling more – demonstrating how difficult it is to attract the excellent leaders (and staff) to the most challenging schools? 

Or is this perhaps evidence of the uncompromising nature of school leaders at this stage of the journey, a greater need to get the right people in and the wrong people out? 

We are careful not to prescribe or suggest a formula for success here, but merely to provide a statistically valid overview from our data, indicating those areas focused on by leaders at different stages of the school improvement journey. 

The troughs and peaks of activity in different areas show that school leaders concentrate with differing degrees of intensity on different pieces of the school improvement jigsaw at different moments on that journey. 

  • Fergal Roche is CEO of The Key, a support service which works with more than 7,000 schools

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