My latest post in The Guardian: I did, I didn’t and I do work in an outstanding school; and I don’t mean Outstanding by Ofsted definition, I mean outstanding in terms of student and staff fulfilment. Let me set my stall out from the start. This article is “not” based on Ofsted definition, so if this is why you came here, you will only be disappointed, so I suggest you are better off reading something else!
Many years ago I did: I was fortunate enough to be appointed to my first middle leadership position. Starting in 1999, I joined the school as the 13th teacher working for 160 students. Today, the school now thrives with approximately 150 members of staff and over 1300 students. The institution I was joining was established by a group of parents who wanted more first choice places for their children and wanted another local comprehensive school to be part of that decision process. Over a decade later, this would have been known as a Free School I hear you say…
I can safely say, my time at this school were the happiest teaching years of my career (to date); so let me tell you why. The luxury of a start-up school allows all stakeholders to join a fresh ethos and a crisp vision. I recall the school motto quite clearly, “Success for All”. But behind the scenes, the ethos amongst the staff was “the extra mile” and within such a young evolving cohort, a healthy zest of competitiveness remained. It was great fun and staff morale was epic!
Staff relished working, and I loved Monday mornings again. I couldn’t get to school quick enough. Parents on the whole, were excited about each new phase of the school’s growth, as this made a significant impact on their child’s development, fully understanding this unique position of being “the first”.
With this inimitable situation, came a huge influx of cash to spend as the curriculum grew and the building work increased. I must have spent a budget in excess of half a million pounds furnishing countless 100sqft Design Technology classrooms. I loved every second! In short, staff worked together and supported each other. Students enjoyed their studies, coupled with an array of enrichment opportunities and great successes. For me, truly outstanding and what I would describe as “my wonder years”.
Not so long ago, I didn’t: I found myself as a senior leader in a National Challenge school. There was no hiding place and I knew it was an opportunity to tackle the chalkface after working in such a rewarding school. This particular school had its successes. A diverse multi-cultural population, covering at least 50 countries and 70 languages. Cultural diversity and community cohesion it was; nothing short of exemplary. On non-uniform days and national flag days, the school was a vibrant and happy place to be and students worked happily together (given the distraction).
However, staff did not pull together and union representatives were intent on bringing down any new ideology to drive up standards. As a new member of ASCL Council, I found my own union CPD heightened to challenge any misconceptions to ensure even I was represented as a member of the teaching staff. I hope you can understand where this is going, as I know I have certainly not described to you, an “Outstanding” school by any definition. A multitude of issues tainted the vision at whole-school level and in turn departments started to suffer losses in relation to staffing, standards and morale. Systems broke down and at times staff gossip was rife.
Converting to an academy in the short term produced mixed outcomes and staff voted with their feet. I recall a swarm of disputes that hindered the staff from making any expanse of progress in the classroom. I know some of those difficulties are prevalent in other schools, but ice-cold classrooms in winter, juxtaposed with excruciating heat in the summer made teaching and learning an after-thought.
Other examples include an ICT network that just did-not-work! Appalling fire-drills; shocking punctuality to lessons and at times, a tenuous leadership team; legionella in the water; little forward-planning and countess “monitoring visits” oozed the life out of classroom teachers. I mean read this carefully, staff well-being even made it onto the list of school priorities! To be frank, staff were pissed off, but some of them I admit, needed a good kick up the backside!
Currently I do work in an outstanding school. The keys on my keyboard clunk at a frantic pace to keep up with the ideas that are being consumed across the workplace. I can’t get around the corridors quick enough to support colleagues; observe lessons, feedback and discuss the varied and inspiring CPD ideas we are planning. I feel like an old steam locomotive en-route for Outstanding!
Staff are keen to improve themselves and each other. The students are equally clear about their expectations and being a feisty and needy bunch of wonderful individuals, they sure make it known. We are generating plenty of tailored pathways for them, but it’s not quick enough to match their complex needs. What we need to do, is meet the definition of “Outstanding”.
We are Outstanding, but not by watchdog definition. Staff are happy, students are happy. Systems are in place and do work. Staff are supported and students are achieving. So, given that, what makes me make such an assumption? Well, in layman’s terms we are almost there. Pockets of excellence exist in every school, but the key ingredient missing to allow us to have outstanding in every aspect, is fundamental. We just need to simply teach better!