Forget Outstanding

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Do you want to be an outstanding teacher?

Don’t bother.

The enemy of good is perfection and that’s why chasing ‘outstanding’ is just plain folly. Good is better than outstanding.

For years some schools have been obsessed with achieving the glowing status of outstanding, the platinum standard of Ofsted, the pinnacle of educational excellence. It is worn as a badge of honour and plastered on school banners, websites and school stationery. It is also meaningless claptrap.

Out There

Outstanding doesn’t really exist and neither do paragon schools. I’ve never seen an outstanding school or an outstanding teacher.

I’ve seen schools that are doing an amazing job in incredibly tough settings where the odds are stacked against them. I’ve seen highly competent ‘stand out’ teachers displaying flashes of brilliance who are busting a gut to make a difference. I’ve also seen performing teachers pretending to be outstanding making little or no impact on pupils because they have focused too much on ‘self’ and not on ‘others’ and the core of their activity: children.

To judge a whole institution as outstanding is outrageous. Outstanding may exist as a concept but this nebulous word is completely subjective and a jelly-like judgment call dependent on who’s watching. If you really want to be outstanding, buy an orange suit and go and stand in the middle of a field.

Super Nonsense

Outstanding doesn’t exist in the same way that a ‘super head’ doesn’t exist.

Schools are gloriously flawed and some more than others – the idea that a school can be anything but flawed is outlandish. Flaws are good otherwise there is nothing to improve.

Flaws drive improvement but no school ever makes it to the top and banners are dangerous adverts for what’s inside: the system cannot operate on ‘outstanding’ because it isn’t a finely-tuned machine. It splutters, coughs and sneezes. Outstanding on the day of inspection might not mirror the realities in the days and weeks afterwards.

It is has been said that outstanding lessons require outstanding planning with a relentless focus on maximising learning. In reality, planning a super-charged 3.8 litre V6 lesson requires enormous planning and time that makes a mockery of our so-called work-life balance. How can anyone plan lesson after lesson to meet this standard? It’s not possible.

Teachers cannot be expected to be brilliant all the time and if they try to be then they will soon come unstuck and their wellbeing suffers. Outstanding lessons are a concoction of unrealistic expectations and canny schools don’t buy into the ‘need’ to be anything other than good. You can be good most of the time.

Michelin Madness

Not aiming for outstanding isn’t giving up, it’s actually being truthful and boxing clever. Schools and teachers can still be madly ambitious for their pupils and their communities but that doesn’t mean aiming low.

Being good is actually better for whole-school wellbeing and certainly for staff sanity. Good is attainable and so is excellence (for a while) but maintaining a state of being ‘exceptional’ is impossible. Education has become dominated by the myth of the super head and the super teacher. What happens when an outstanding school starts to show cracks and starts to fail?

Michelin Star restaurants are under enormous stress to keep their stars and they have to maintain a consistently high standard throughout the year not knowing if the couple sat near the window are inspectors. Head chefs work in a constant pressure cooker and some commit suicide because perfection becomes too much. The merciless pressure drove top chef Bernard Loiseau to take his own life in 2003.

The pressure of trying to earn outstanding status is nothing compared with the burden of living up to it; the expectations are too high and losing ‘outstanding’ can be devastating for a school’s reputation and ‘status’  – why put staff through that? Isn’t it therefore to be satisfied with imperfections as being normal and that good is good enough.

That’s why you will find Michelin superstar chefs eating ham, egg and chips at the local pub because it is simple, unfussy and normal life. Good is fine, good is outstandingly normal.

Schools that aim beyond good could be playing with fire because perfection and being an amazing and brilliant teacher come at a human cost.

The publishing industry has contributed to this with countless books and resources about ‘How To Deliver An Outstanding Lesson’ or ‘How To Be An Outstanding Teacher’ and whilst some of these might be well-meaning enough they feed the system to be super human teachers. These are just recipes for an epic fail somewhere along the line.

Be Happy

The best schools out there might just be the ‘good’ schools and not the outstanding ones. They are the schools doing their best and that’s good enough. But brilliance does have its place in a school and I still think we should have school banners even if you have a visceral dislike for them – I’m talking of the banner that broadcasts to the world “We are an outstandingly happy school”.

Billingham South Community Primary School are a happy school, outstandingly so and they should rightly display their banner with pride – in fact they are the world’s first! This is what matters and this gets to the crux of the issue: happy learners are successful learners and it is this wellbeing ethos what schools should be focusing on. The idea of awarding  a school with outstanding status for being happy and positive comes from the art of brilliance and is a fantastic spin on the gradings-culture we live in and the mental shift we need.

Image result for outstandingly happy school

Image source: @beingbrilliant

Good Is Great

Trying to make our schools outstanding can actually prevent us from making them good in the first place and I think they can eat away at happiness too. I’d rather be in an outstandingly happy good school than an outstanding school waiting to fail feeling inadequate with itself and looking over its shoulder.

Speaking at the Telegraph Festival of Education, Ofsted Chief Amanda Spielman says that schools should focus on pupils and not on league tables.

Inspections are about looking underneath the bonnet to be sure that a good quality education – one that genuinely meets pupils’ needs – is not being compromised.

Note: “good quality education” – not outstanding.

One sure way to get teachers feeling good about themselves would be to ditch outstanding altogether, well, except if we are talking about happiness.

Outstanding might sound good but who wants the burden of being that good all the time or at least the heavy expectation to be something you can’t live up day after day?

7 thoughts on “Forget Outstanding

  1. @alatalite (Alistair Smith – once wrote a spoof article referencing a job for “Head of Happiness” at “The Canubeleiveit Academy” about 12-13 years or so ago. It highlighted the success of the happy learner versus the plight of the pressured performer, amongst other things, and sought to improve the focus of teachers on those things in our vocation that matter most – children. Not posturing ideology; ‘outstanding’ banners on school gates; “no excuses” discipline policies; trad v prog troll gangs; VAbloodyK and Brain Gym; etc, etc.

    Happy learners are successful learners and, surprise, surprise, happy (respected) teachers get good results and stay in the profession. No rocket science.

  2. Im so grateful that this is being said. I have felt this way for a long time and been afraid to say it out loud for fear i was embracing seemingly ‘lower standards’. I strongly agree that maintaining an outstanding status is unmanageable and i prefer to put my energy on my relationship with my students.

  3. I agree about being good all the time. Once in a while a great lesson comes along when your expectations prep and the children have a great day. I often get good or better results and do this by persistently pushing for all children to do their best and therefore feel proud of their work. All these silly labels that suggest there is an ultimate goal that can be reached and that a scientific approach will work. Sorry folks teaching is an art form. The skill of the teacher and their experience to know when to use a particular strategy to help and guide a child to do their best and have confidence to challenge themselves is what we should be striving for.

  4. Couldn’t agree more – good teachers who stay in the profession are surely preferable to ‘outstanding teachers’ who have to leave due to stress related illness…

  5. So so true! I’ve always hated it. ‘Full potential’ is another one. How can anyone ever measure someone’s full potential?!

    Any time I’ve been asked about ‘outstanding’ at interviews, I’ve always said I don’t believe in it. Having experienced ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’ schools, give me a good school any day.

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