Case study: Focus on teaching and learning


Charged with improving teaching quality at her school as part of its journey to outstanding, Amos Wardell describes some of the actions she took.

At Ellis Guilford we firmly believe in our ethos: “Be your best.” Being a member of the school community means being willing to be challenged to be your best at all times. The school has worked hard to forge links with the community and develop relationships with parents through text and email surveys, and half-termly Parent Forum events. We believe in the importance of a positive school culture, and have begun creating this through our tutor programme, a house system and values-based assemblies.

That said, the school faces several challenges; students come from diverse backgrounds, with 60 per cent Pupil Premium. A number of our students also have English as an additional language and SEND. While grades had been on an upward trend, in our Ofsted inspection in 2013, the school was deemed to have serious weaknesses.

The Future Leaders programme gave me the opportunity to increase my effectiveness as a leader. After joining the programme in 2011, I spent a fantastic residency year working with an inspirational headteacher at Holte School in Birmingham, where I learned some of the key foundations for an “outstanding” school. I now want to help Ellis Guilford on its own journey to being outstanding.

Choosing a focus – quality of teaching

The most important things that happen in schools happen in classrooms, and I wanted to find out about this from the Ellis Guilford students’ point of view. To do so, I put in place regular Student Forums. For each forum I select a random group of students, as Ofsted would, and ask them questions about the same areas that Ofsted monitors.

In the first Student Forums, many students complained of being “bored” in lessons – a key indication that teaching and learning in the school had grown stale. Improving quality of teaching was to become my main focus in my first year at Ellis Guilford.

Before I joined the school there had been little emphasis on quality of teaching. Many teachers just hadn’t had access to new practice. The school wasn’t used to or comfortable talking about teaching and learning – even the teachers whose practice was great didn’t really know why they were doing what they were doing.

I needed to give our teachers the language to talk about teaching and learning, and from there create a structure in the school that would support all our teachers to achieve consistently “good” lessons. To do this required many smaller initiatives, which added up to drastic change throughout the school. My concrete aims were:

  • To improve the school’s CPD programme to the point that overall quality of teaching would be judged “good” by our internal Teaching and Learning Team.

  • To improve our overall results in core subjects, with a specific focus on English. I knew we could bring results in English up from 38 per cent A* to C at GCSE to a score that reflected our students’ hard work.

Talking about teaching and learning

I researched what other senior leaders in the Future Leaders network were doing to improve teaching and learning. I received some particularly great support from the training days put on by other participants, which I used to inspire the first step in my initiative – three mini-INSETs to share best practice among staff around subjects such as literacy and differentiation. This got the staff talking and thinking about their practice, setting the stage for further improvement initiatives. 

Next, I introduced a Teaching and Learning Fortnightly Focus, delivered via email bulletin. Each bulletin focuses on a different strategy to improve teaching practice – for example, Pace and Challenge. It describes what this would look like in an Ofsted-rated “good” school, then gives a description of the practice and the theory behind it, and finally offers practical tips on how teachers could use it in the classroom. 

At first, teachers said that they didn’t need this bulletin and that they didn’t have time to read it. But we began to incorporate it into CPD, and to present it as a display where everyone would be sure to read it – on the back of toilet doors. Later in the year, after many CPD sessions (and loo visits), staff started asking for the bulletin so they could try out the ideas it suggested.

A backbone for ‘good’ lessons

When I started at the school, I began developing the Seven Steps to “Good” – a list of seven basic expectations, tied into the Teacher Standards, that are necessary to teach a “good” lesson. I gradually introduced these to staff throughout the school. The seven steps are:

  • Engaging start.

  • Challenging outcomes.

  • Positive climate for learning.

  • Literacy.

  • Differentiation.

  • Assessment of learning.

  • Effective feedback.

The seven steps aren’t ground-breaking – but they can provide teachers with a backbone to build their lessons around, and have allowed a number of our staff to move to “good” in their lesson observations

Designing effective CPD

Redesigning the school’s CPD programme from scratch was the next, and most ambitious, initiative on the agenda. All CPD was delivered weekly, to start with organised by me but now run by our CPD team – a group of seven members of staff with exemplary teaching practice.

Consistent monitoring of staff ensures that we give all staff members CPD that will challenge them to improve their practice further, and ultimately do better for our students. One of the first CPD programmes was for staff who were really struggling. After one half-term-long intensive CPD cycle, six out of the initial 12 members of the group had improved their practice to the degree that they moved into a different CPD stream.

We have also introduced a school-wide system of student progress tracking, which feeds back into the CPD system as we can monitor which classes aren’t making the progress they should, and give those classes’ teachers the support they need to change that.


The results of the CPD programme and other initiatives can be seen most clearly in the English department. When I joined the school, this department was particularly weak. There was poor quality of teaching, no secure systems in place for monitoring student progress, and little appetite for change. 

The introduction of the CPD programme and the new system for student tracking led to drastic improvement. Even though the staff were initially resistant, our results the summer after I joined won them round. They were the highest they have ever been, with 73 per cent of students achieving three or more levels of progress.

The ultimate aim of all of these initiatives was to improve outcomes for pupils at Ellis Guilford – and we are well on the way to doing so. While there’s still a lot to do, in a monitoring visit in May, Ofsted wrote: “Achievement in English and mathematics at key stage 4 is steadily improving. School leaders have devised a comprehensive and creative range of programmes to support teachers in their professional development. These programmes, such as ‘Seven Steps’, are supported by a team of lead teachers who coach and support colleagues on structured improvement programmes.”

By June of the year I joined the school, the number of lessons which were graded good or better had improved by 30 percentage points to 75 per cent. In feedback, staff have acknowledged the school’s increase in expectations, and say that they feel they have the skills to meet them.

And lessons are no longer “boring”. In our most recent Student Forum students said they felt that the majority of lessons had creative activities, and that this supported their learning – a dramatic shift from last year’s Forum feedback.

Going forward, I aim to ensure that high expectations and good-quality teaching practice are consistent across the school. I will work with our middle leaders to drive improvements in their individual departments, to ensure we have a sustainable model of continuous progress. 

Together, the staff and I have ensured that the Ellis Guilford ethos of “Be our best” is not just a motto, but is reflected in the way we approach all aspects of our practice.

  • Amos Wardell is a senior assistant head at Ellis Guilford School in Nottingham.

Future Leaders
Future Leaders is a development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools. To apply or nominate, visit Future Leaders is also recruiting for Talented Leaders, a programme to place exceptional leaders into headship in the areas that need them most. Visit


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