The DNA of an effective school

Written by: Liam Donnison | Published:
Photo: iStock

Ofsted guidelines change constantly, and while they do give schools something to focus on, research has shown that effectiveness comes from a set of fundamental principles that improve outcomes in all areas. Liam Donnison explains

Ofsted requirements change year-on-year to adapt to the issues affecting UK schools. For example, the inclusion of academies in the guidelines only began in 2012, after concerns were raised about the inequity in quality of UK schools, and the 2015 handbook specifically details safeguarding criteria following the “Trojan Horse” scandal of 2014.

These updates are essential to ensuring that children are receiving the best and safest possible learning environment, but these guidelines are only part of a school’s improvement analysis.

Through reviewing a wide array of research, we have established a set of fundamental characteristics which will promote consistent effectiveness in schools, no matter the circumstances.

These elements cover all aspects of school improvement and can be divided into six distinct categories: learning, teaching, leadership, people management, governance, and business management.

Element 1: Learning

Pupils should always be the central focus in school improvement. A positive and learner-centred community will add extra value to its students’ outcomes, and they will progress further than might be expected.

So what do schools need to have in order to create an effective learning community? In terms of the curriculum, schools should implement a smart design that allows teachers the freedom to be creative in their lessons, capitalising on their own skills and motivations.

For the pupils, peer-to-peer learning and collaboration should be encouraged in order to help them develop their strengths and address their weaknesses together. Pupils should also be given a level of responsibility over their own learning objectives and monitoring their own progress, as this will boost their self-confidence and help them to gain a better understanding of their learning style.

Element 2: Teaching

Effective teaching is the biggest factor in influencing the school’s outcomes, with research from Professor John Hattie showing it to account for around 30 per cent of the variance in school effectiveness.

At a fundamental level, teachers should be knowledgeable about their subject and the age group they teach, so that they can tailor their lessons to fit the needs of individual pupils and support their learning journey. Teachers should also be committed to learning, taking every opportunity to engage with training, classroom research and sharing their experiences with other teachers.

Assessment is another key factor. With the removal of levels, schools have needed to develop their own models of monitoring, the most effective being frequent formative assessment. Tied into this is the effective use and understanding of data to provide support and feedback to pupils.

Effective teaching can make a significant difference. A high-performing teacher can add 1.5 years’ worth of learning to a pupil’s progress over an average school year, according to research by Sammuns and Bakkum.

It is no surprise then, that statistics from the Sutton Trust show that 69 per cent of school budgets are spent on teachers, totalling around £20.7 billion a year.

Element 3: Leadership

School leaders have an indirect, but powerful effect on pupil outcomes. Not only do they make decisions at the organisational level that can change or improve the classroom environment, but they also have a significant impact on staff cohesion and whole-school development.

The key tasks of headteachers include leading the development of the school’s curriculum goals, communicating with staff, parents and the wider community, and managing the school’s data and development.

They should also be actively engaged in the school, implementing instructional leadership and encouraging a focus on effective teaching and learning.

High-performing headteachers will claim to really enjoy teaching, but add that the administrative burden involved in the job will often hinder their ability to engage with their staff and pupils.

A model of distributed leadership can improve teachers’ perceptions of their working conditions, which in turn enhances the quality of teaching. According to Kenneth Leithwood, total leadership is responsible for around 27 per cent of the variation in pupil outcomes, so by making use of the talents and skills of a larger leadership team, all of the specific needs of the school can be addressed.

Element 4: People-management

Staffing needs should be reviewed regularly, and schools should make decisions wherever possible to ensure that pupils have continuity of teaching staff.

All staff should be made to feel a part of the team and to have a clear idea of what is expected from them, as well as the priorities and vision of the school. Professional development should be deemed essential, rather than a luxury, and the school should always encourage further staff training.

As well as evaluations conducted by headteachers, self-assessment is an important factor in teacher development. Staff should be encouraged to ask critical questions, such as: “Do I plan lessons to ensure continuity and progress? Do I mark and assess pupils’ work as helpfully as I can?”

This is an excellent first step in performance management that highlights any weaknesses, which can then be addressed by CPD or through collaboration with other schools.

Headteachers are already doing a great deal to support their teachers and nurture their talent and potential, but there is more to be done for staff recruitment, management and retention in most schools. This can be addressed through providing development opportunities and adapting the reward system to reflect individual performances and incentivise teachers.

Element 5: Governance

High-functioning governing bodies should be able to draw upon a wide range of skills and expertise from its members. They can provide effective support and challenge to the school’s leadership team, maintaining focus on pupil progress and wellbeing as a priority.

Governors are responsible for headteacher performance management and holding the leadership team to account. They should have an understanding of the school from the ground up, so that they are well-informed of the teaching and leadership models, strengths and weaknesses, and intervention methods in place when assessing the needs of the school and making any executive decisions.

Element 6: Business management

In order to allow school leaders to focus on the school’s core business of promoting learning, school business managers can be brought in to supervise administration, analyse performance and identify areas for improvement.

This role includes issues such as managing facilities and systems to ultimately help schools to become more agile and responsive to their individual needs. Another key aspect of this is managing safeguarding, which is interwoven into all aspects of school life.

Key features of outstanding safeguarding provision include the development of stringent staff vetting procedures and a rigorous safeguarding policy and site security.

Again, the use of data is crucial, as it promotes the effective allocation of resources and staff, as well as the effectiveness of initiatives and strategies implemented by the school.

Final thought

In all of these areas, the wellbeing and development of pupils should be at the forefront of all considerations. By creating an effective and nurturing environment, both the school and its pupils will be able to thrive.

Rather than being limited to inspection guidelines, success will come from schools analysing and identifying their individual settings and being motivated to improve across all areas of the school.

  • Liam Donnison explains, director of EES for Schools.


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