Reflections on outstanding


After contributing a chapter on his school’s improvement journey to an important new book, Chris Holmwood reflects on the inspirations that drive him and his colleagues to achieve outstanding.

The Leadership and Training Centre at Shenley Brook End School last month hosted the launch of an exciting new book. Sustainable School Transformation, edited by David Crossley, argues convincingly that the time is right for schools to take a leading role in national and international school improvement.

Using case studies from the UK and US, framed with introductory and concluding thinking drawing upon vast professional experience and international perspectives, the book has already been very positively reviewed by the likes of Estelle Morris and Brian Lightman.

We were especially delighted to host the launch as we have contributed a chapter to the book. It outlines our school improvement journey between 2006 and 2012. During this time the school moved from Ofsted good to outstanding in teaching and learning in 2009, and into the top three per cent of RAISE Online for our value added data in 2011. Key approaches included:

  • Identifying the fears of staff which were perceived to hold the school back.

  • An explicit focus upon improving our staff development culture.

  • Distributing greater levels of leadership throughout the school.

  • Creating a common language of learning supported by new assessment/skills development frameworks.

  • Increasing use of cross-curricular and immersive learning experiences to support independent learning and raise the quality of teaching.

  • Developing new approaches in the use of line and performance management to have a significant impact upon the quality of middle leadership.

Self-evaluation and challenge

The opportunity to contribute to the book came about through a visit to the school by David in which he looked at our school improvement work in relation to the book’s proposal for a “manifesto for change”. This included “making the most of the teachers we have”, “unleashing their creativity” and “offering a curriculum that really meets the needs of 21st century learners”.

These were challenging areas of focus in which to share our work. In writing the chapter, we were able to see how many of the strands of our improvement strategy were interconnected and also to review the extent with which they had cohered successfully. We examined the quality of ideas against the quality of their implementation and considered ways in which to refine both.

Small steps inspired by big thinking

Part of our school improvement journey was inspired by our reading – especially the challenge from Mike Hughes in Tweak to Transform that “the emphasis in many classrooms has been on delivering, as opposed to exploring, the curriculum”.

In order to place our story within the context of the book, I read more widely and was challenged by Michael Barber’s plea for the “systematic capacity to innovate” (in Oceans of Innovation), and the urgent need expressed in the McKinsey Report (2010) to “unleash the creativity and innovation of its educators”.

This helped me to reflect upon how the McKinsey description of “peer-led creativity and innovation” becoming “the core driver for raising performance” described our journey. It also challenged me to consider how to share this more widely and effectively in our new role as a Teaching School working with schools in a range of contexts.

Learning more from other countries

John Cridland’s (chief executive of the CBI) use of the OECD 2012 strategy report on skills development to argue for a CBI-led focus on “the attitudes and aptitudes of the British workforce” was useful in encouraging us to further develop our own framework for Attitudes, Skills and Knowledge. We became more aware of how the debates we had engaged in that had shaped the school’s direction were also relevant in the international debate about approaches to improving education.

We are often compared unfavourably with other countries and an affirming part of the process was to discover more about how many connections there were between our own thinking and international debate.

Exploring Hong Kong’s decision to ensure students learn how to communicate, adapt to change, solve problems, analyse, conceptualise, reflect on how to improve and so on, encouraged us greatly in the decisions we made to introduce our own skills development frameworks.

Learning about the Finnish system’s move from prescribed approaches and standardisation towards a culture of trust, creativity and risk-taking was also an encouragement and a challenge in considering the extent to which we were seeking to use similar approaches in continuing to raise standards.

At the book launch event, we asked for written feedback about what had resonated with people and the most common response was how the book had brought home the significance of creating school cultures where confidence and collaboration are priorities.

One person wrote: “We have plenty of people to can tell you how it is. We could do with a few more who can show you how it could be.”

  • Chris Holmwood is senior deputy headteacher at Shenley Brook End School in Milton Keynes and principal of the school’s Leadership and Training Centre.

Further information
  • David Crossley has written a recent piece for SecEd – 10 steps to a world class education system – based on the themes within his book:
  • You can meet many of the contributors to Sustainable School Transformation at the Whole Education Conference in London on November 19 and 20. Visit


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