Creating a culture of high expectations

Written by: Steve Burnage | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Developing a culture where everyone in the school has high expectations and takes responsibility for learning should be the goal of all school leaders. Steve Burnage looks at the key elements that such schools are built on

The focus on standards-based reform, as championed by the UK government and through the current Ofsted inspection framework, has led to an increased emphasis on tests, coupled with rewards and sanctions, as the basis for “accountability” systems.

These strategies have often had unintended consequences that undermine access to education for low-achieving students.

They have also undermined, according to Ofsted’s chief inspector, access to a broad and balanced curriculum and this is something that Ofsted has recognised in its consultation over the new Education Inspection Framework due for implementation in September (Ofsted, January 2019).

From my point of view, more successful outcomes are often achieved in schools and colleges that have focused on broader notions of accountability, including investment in teacher knowledge and skill, the organisation of schools to support teacher and student learning, and the use of systems of assessment that drive curriculum reform and teaching improvements.

Outstanding schools develop effective leadership, accountability and high expectations across the school at all levels. In this article, I want to share some practical strategies to enable school leaders to develop an ethos of high expectation and accountability in their schools.

Exploring a cause and effect relationship

Ultimately, accountability is not about measuring student learning (although that plays a part), it is about actually improving it. Consequently, genuine accountability involves supporting changes in teaching and learning that can heighten the probability that students meet externally measured standards. In order to do this, school leaders need to focus on three main areas:

  1. Ensuring that teachers have the knowledge and skills they need to teach to the standards.
  2. Providing school structures that support high-quality teaching and learning.
  3. Creating processes for school assessment that can evaluate students’ opportunities to learn and can leverage continuous change and improvement.

We know that there is a clear link between the quality of learning and the quality of teaching but we should be careful not to confuse the two. Learners may well evidence outstanding learning while experiencing poor teaching, and outstanding teaching does not necessarily lead to evidence of outstanding learning and progress.

There is a clear relationship between the quality of teaching and the quality of learning, and between the input a learner receives – teaching, resources, learning intervention, pastoral care etc – and the impact these have on the learning and progress made by the student. The most important of these cause and effect relationships is the last.

In order to develop an ethos of high expectation across any school, school leaders and their teams need to be able to make clear judgements about the effectiveness of the teaching taking place and should focus on the impact that the teaching is having on the progress learners are making.

Gathering evidence

School leaders might gather evidence to support an ethos of high expectation and accountability from a variety of sources, which could include:

  • Pupil attainment data, such as test results, teacher assessments, external exam results.
  • Pupil progress data, such as actual performance against predictions from reliable external sources.
  • Observational data, such as lesson observations, book sampling etc.
  • Discursive data, such as conversations with learners, staff, parents etc.

The key elements

There are some crucial factors that contribute to an ethos of high expectation and accountability. Schools need to ensure accountability across three key areas:

  1. Effective school leadership.
  2. An effective climate for learning.
  3. Effective learning structures.

1, Effective leadership for accountability

If school leaders are to be effective, they need to ensure that they give learners the best opportunities to demonstrate outstanding learning and progress through outstanding teaching.

They need to ensure that class teachers are empowered to deliver this and are also accountable for this. To achieve this, school leaders should:

  • Make sure that their schools have a clear vision of what outstanding learning and teaching looks like.
  • Develop highly effective strategies in their own teaching and in the teaching of those that they lead.
  • Monitor, evaluate and improve the teaching of all those delivering high-quality learning in schools.

An effective climate for learning

An ethos of highly effective learning and teaching consists of two key elements – the climate for learning and the structure of learning.

In order for there to be accountability across the school, school leaders need to ensure that they support teachers and school leaders in creating an effective climate for learning. School leaders should work together with their staff to achieve this.

Creating a successful climate for learning involves the complex mix of policies to promote a positive general ethos, with some very specific, shared, concrete systems that are needed to underpin and facilitate the smooth running of a school. There are some key ingredients:

  • Leadership that is shared, understood and seen as fair is at the very heart of the school with an effective climate for learning.
  • Placing student responsibility at the heart of school policies.
  • Ensuring senior staff are seen as high profile exemplifications of the school’s behaviour systems.
  • Building levels into school systems so that all staff take responsibility for managing behaviour.
  • Keeping the learning climate positive and focused on praise.
  • Working with other agencies (but be careful that the school doesn’t start to take responsibility for areas outside its remit).

3, Creating a structure of learning

Developing a positive ethos of accountability to support outstanding teaching and learning requires that teachers:

  • Focus and structure their teaching in a clear and consistent way.
  • Actively engage learners in their learning from the start of every lesson.
  • Use assessment for learning to reinforce learning and support reflection and target-setting.
  • Have high expectations of each pupil’s effort and achievement.
  • Make the learning motivating and relevant to learners’ life experiences.
  • Create a settled and purposeful atmosphere.

Giving learners freedom

However, within this structure, it is also vital that learners are given freedom to learn independently. Some effective strategies to encourage independent learning include:

  • Give choices: giving learners regular opportunities to make choices will encourage them to reflect on their own interests and preferences. It will also make them start to take responsibility for learning.
  • Encourage group work: this temporarily takes the control away from the teacher and gives it to the learners.
  • Encourage learners to predict how well they did in assessments: this will start them reflecting about their strengths and weaknesses and the progress they are making.
  • Set some learning goals: initially setting learning goals will require a lot of help from teachers, but it encourages learners to reflect and self-evaluate independently.
  • Use authentic texts: authentic texts are materials which were not originally designed for learning purposes. These materials can be motivating as they connect the classroom with the outside world and make the learners see that learning does not take place only in the classroom.
  • Learners and lesson planning: encourage learners to help plan lessons to increase their engagement and involvement as well as their responsibility and accountability.
  • Encourage learners to keep learner diaries: these diaries can form a dialogue between the teacher and the learners which is mutually beneficial.
  • Build reflection and extension into activities: open questions are generally more thought-provoking meta-questions that encourage learners to reflect and extend their learning.
  • Encourage self and peer editing: encourage learners to check their own work or that of a peer. Teachers could help them to make an editing checklist.

Developing independent learning abilities is about assisting learners to develop skills, which will help them to become good learners; to take responsibility for learning and to be able to apply these skills to any new learning situation. This in turn will contribute to developing an ethos of high expectation among the learners themselves.

  • Steve Burnage has experience leading challenging inner city and urban secondary schools. He now works as a freelance trainer, consultant and author for staff development, strategic development, performance management and coaching and mentoring. Visit and read his previous articles for SecEd, including his previous CPD workshop overviews, at

Further information

Consultation: Education inspection framework 2019: inspecting the substance of education, Ofsted, January 2019 (consultation closes April 5, 2019):


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