What makes a school world-class? Part 3

Written by: Phil Denton | Published:
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What are the practical elements of being a world-class school? Phil Denton concludes his series with a look at some of the key elements that are essential for a school to be effective

In this three-part article I have attempted to explore what makes schools world-class. It is a phrase or a concept which I ascribe to because it does not rely on the nuances of inspection grade descriptors (which are movable).

It is a concept that my school, St Bede’s Catholic High School, is striving for and one which is illustrated in our revised vision. That vision is for a “world-class Catholic education that encourages our students to want to make the world a better place”.

In the first article I discussed vision and culture as being crucial to any world-class school. In the second instalment, I explored theories and examples of change management in order to achieve world-class standards. Specifically, this change related to the habits of staff and students, with the notion that we are the habits we keep.

Finally, in this article, I want to identify the practical elements of being world-class for the 21st century school. From research and papers written by educational researchers and watchdogs, this article will cover the key operational elements of world-class schools.

A 21st century curriculum

World-class schools have a curriculum which is purposeful and prepares students for more than just exams. Research from SSAT’s Redesigning Schooling work highlighted that “outstanding” schools were preparing for the new curriculum prior to its launch in 2015.

Involved in this preparation was a revised approach that encouraged deeper learning and an ability to problem-solve as well as to retain information. This approach was driven by the workshops of Professor Dylan Wiliam among others (Principled curriculum design, SSAT, October 2013).

Pedagogy was not the only contributing factor to this change of thinking. There was also a response to local, national and international influences upon the content of the curriculum.

In high performing schools this is clearly identified in a strong curriculum rationale. This rationale gives teachers, students and parents a “why” that justifies how the curriculum will be delivered and what the content will be. With reference to my first article, such an approach reflects the “golden circle” theory devised by Simon Sinek.

World-class schools arrive at their curriculum rationale, approach and content by speaking to the staff, students and parents. The best schools are interwoven with their local communities rather than being institutions that become urban islands. They are living exemplifications of the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child”.

Inspirational development

As teachers, we have more choice in our lives than ever before. The exposure we have to theories of pedagogy and general practice is widespread – through emails, online forums and social media. It is perhaps then understandable why many teachers become disengaged and frustrated with a “one-size-fits-all” approach to whole-school professional development.

World-class schools understand the needs of the individual teacher as they do the individual child. They have an array of professional development opportunities available, as well as encouraging involvement in a variety of networks and with a variety of research evidence.

Such an approach is enhanced by world-class schools encouraging colleagues to access contemporary research and thinking via online forums and social media.

One great example of such an approach is available to listen to via Pivotal Podcasts. The podcast (number 201 if you’d like to look it up) features an interview with deputy headteacher Jon Tait.

Mr Tait refuses to use the phrase CPD at Acklam Grange School in Middlesbrough. He encourages staff to volunteer for the CPD they believe they require and to register for weekly voluntary sessions via the online ticketing service Eventbrite.

Sessions are preceded by brief (i.e. less than 10 minutes) video clips that detail the theory and focus on of the session. Staff then watch these clips at their leisure before attending the sessions ready to talk practically about how this might impact upon their practice.

After listening and reading about this programme, I believe that it clearly mirrors the flexibility and nuanced approach that successful businesses have in the 21st century. That is to say that Mr Tait’s approach allows staff to have a degree of control over their development. This approach offers the “autonomy” I referred to in the first article of this series.

Furthermore, teacher autonomy has been identified as a key component in successful teacher retention strategies by recent research from the National Foundation for Educational Research (Teacher Workforce Dynamics in England, NFER, November 2018).

That is not to say that Mr Tait does not keep a track of who attends which sessions to ensure teachers are engaging and using this freedom responsibly, but fundamentally the best schools in the world know their staff and trust their staff.

What’s for breakfast?

World-class schools know their students intimately. In the same way that Mr Tait knows his staff, Tuesday Humby, who I referred to in the second article in this series, speaks of knowing her students inside-out to the point that teachers are even aware what they had for breakfast!

In my previous role, I worked with Standish High School in Wigan to review their use of Pupil Premium funding. One strategy I took from their approach related to something we might see in the medical profession.

Their “case conferences” where similar to a medical team reviewing a patient’s symptoms and discussing the possible medications or treatments.

At Standish High, they do the same for their students by having all of the key members of staff sat around a table and discussing what each student’s barriers to learning may be and what the potential solutions are.
The discussions involve members of the teaching staff, the pastoral team, senior leaders and anyone else who can influence the learning of the child.

Having adopted this approach at St Bede’s, we find that the involvement of the literacy coordinator was pivotal, as it became clear that the students with significant underperformance and attendance issues almost always had issues with literacy.

Such links and correlations prompt action that is cohesive, collectively agreed and as such has the genuine buy-in of all those involved.

Furthermore, the involvement of leaders who can make decisions on funding, time allocations and whole-school oversight means that in one meeting decisions can be made, preventing the need for several subsequent conversations.

The highest performing teachers and teaching teams understand the needs of the students and respond to them in a manner which is well planned, cohesively implemented, consistently monitored and effectively reviewed.

A family affair

To say that world-class schools are like families could be construed as suggesting that this may negate tangible outcomes and rather focus on soft skills.

However, in the best schools the family approach means that there is a love for each and every child that is reflected in the dedication and determination of all involved for the best possible educational outcomes.
Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman has proposed – from September 2019 – replacing the inspection grade for teaching and learning with one which covers a student’s quality of education.

Ms Spielman has said: “Under quality of education, we intend to look at three distinct aspects. First the intent – what is it that schools want for all their children? Then the implementation – how is teaching and assessment fulfilling the intent? Finally, the impact – that the results and wider outcomes that children achieve and the destinations that they go on to.

“At the same time, Ofsted will challenge those schools where too much time is spent on preparation for tests at the expense of teaching.”

So included in this judgement must be the quality of delivery, the tracking of progress and the frequent evaluation of practice. Yet it must also include the wider education for personal, social, emotional and health development. Such a holistic approach is very evident in the mission and ethos of any world-class school.

At St Patrick’s Catholic High School in Eccles, their motto of “amazing things happen here” conveys a broad and exciting education in four words. Headteacher Alison Byrne describes the wide range of extra-curricular opportunities as well as the strong academic grounding. The walls of the school exude this excellence and commitment to educating the whole child.

Such a commitment to a 21st century education is being championed by organisations such as Whole Education. The organisation brings together colleagues committed to an education that offers more than just exam results. Their mission is articulated as: “We believe that all children deserve an engaging and rounded education that supports academic achievement, but also develops the skills, knowledge and qualities needed to flourish in life, learning and work.”

Therefore, the good news is that we can learn from each other and we can learn from organisations as a greater awareness for the need for a total education becomes apparent.

Love, faith and hope

In conclusion, I do believe that world-class schools are unequivocally committed to values of love, faith and hope. In all of these values there are three distinct aspects – ourselves, each other and the environment around us. This understanding is very much open to debate and development at St Bede’s.

By aiming for a world-class education, as school leaders we can elevate ourselves above the shifting sands of Ofsted grade descriptors. This is in the hope that our sights are set on our own ambitions for our students and each other.

Through my reading, research and experience I have come to believe that the outcomes of a school are the tip of the iceberg – it is the aspects I have discussed which exist below the surface that control the direction and growth of any school.

  • Phil Denton is headteacher of St Bede’s Catholic High School in Ormskirk. You can email him at p.denton@sbchs.co.uk or follow on Twitter @Phil_ TRFC. You can read his previous articles for SecEd, via http://bit.ly/2szXIgl

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