Four key lessons to get your school to outstanding


What does outstanding look like and how can you get there as a school? Dan Belcher delivers four fundamental lessons from secondary schools on the frontline aimed at helping you to achieve outstanding.

Definitions of outstanding abound, not least from Ofsted. Under the latest framework no school can be judged outstanding overall without outstanding teaching and learning.  

This instinctively makes sense. However, being an outstanding school is more than getting an Ofsted “outstanding grading” – that may take a school part of the way but it is not the end of the journey or the full story. 

So what does outstanding look like and what lessons can we learn from schools? It is important to note that what takes a school from satisfactory to good, is not necessarily the same as what is required to bridge the gap to outstanding. 

In the CfBT Education Trust report To the Next Level: Good schools becoming outstanding (May 2011), one headteacher highlighted this difference: “You have to tighten up to be good. You loosen to become outstanding.” 

Within a culture of excellence students and teachers need to be empowered to take calculated risks. The report highlighted five themes:

  • Consistency of and creativity in teaching.

  • A personalised curriculum.

  • Engagement of students.

  • Relations with the outside world.

  • Inspirational leadership.

The schools in the SSAT “Leading outstanding schools” programmes all have different stories to tell, but there are some common foundations that underpin their success. Here are four key lessons.

Lesson 1: A shared and consistent framework for what outstanding teaching and learning looks like and support for teachers to improve their practice.

Consistency in the quality of teaching and learning may be the single biggest factor in being an outstanding school.

It is little use having a few exceptionally gifted practitioners if this cannot be shared so that all teachers can teach consistently good and outstanding lessons. Indeed, within school variation in the quality of teaching is typically far greater than between schools. Students’ experience and life chances should not be left to a lottery of which teachers they have.

Outstanding schools frequently have their own professional development programmes to take teachers from satisfactory to good and from good to outstanding.

A succinctly articulated framework for outstanding teaching and learning, written down on one side of A4, owned and understood by all teaching staff, is evident in many outstanding schools.

Robert Clack School in Dagenham has the “Robert Clack Good Lesson” and at City Academy Hackney there is a six-point plan for teaching an outstanding lesson. Here is an abbreviated example of headings:

  • Organise and plan in advance.

  • Manage entry to the lesson.

  • Connect the learning and engage the learners.

  • Teach for progress.

  • Use agreed intervention strategies.

  • Manage the end of the lesson.

At City Academy Hackney, where there are rigorous routines in place to reinforce high expectations of behaviour, equally great emphasis is placed on need for creativity in classroom. Teachers and students are encouraged to try things out and take measured risks to bring the learning alive.  

At Seven Kings High School in Ilford, fantastic examples of creativity can be found like the multi-sensory learning environment within the business studies department or the vibrant use of higher order questioning in English.

Lesson 2: Personalising the curriculum and the English Baccalaureate Certificate

It has been interesting to observe that where an outstanding school is located in an area of cultural, economic and social deprivation, it has often seen its role to some extent as “the middle class (pushy) parent”. The school seeks to encourage high aspiration, provide cultural opportunities and support achievement that may not always be available at home.

For some schools this has meant an even greater focus on academic subjects and pursuit of the English Baccalaureate subjects as a passport to further education, university and better job opportunities.

However, what of vocational qualifications and training? Currently only around half of UK students go on to university and it would be wrong to measure success and failure in such narrow terms as the EBacc subjects and high stakes testing.

A rich and broad curriculum is needed that will prepare all students for life, work and to contribute positively to society. The curriculum requires personalisation, not simply mass production. 

Personal attributes and habits of mind, such as creativity, problem-solving, self-discipline and social skills will contribute strongly to students’ life chances and happiness. To this end some outstanding schools are choosing to turn to International Baccalaureate.

Lesson 3: The engagement of students and establishing a culture of aspiration

All outstanding schools share a relentless pursuit of excellence, high expectations and achievement. Success, in all its forms and wherever it is found, is celebrated publicly and often.

Assemblies frequently provide the vehicle for rewarding and praising students for demonstrating the personal qualities and behaviours the school is seeking to develop, as well as achievement. A culture of success and high aspiration is created.

Students are engaged in their education through effective and high quality teaching and learning that ensures progress. They are encouraged to be active, inquisitive, resilient and imaginative.

The focus of teaching is on helping students learn rather than on performing on the test, the latter following as a natural product of the former. A virtuous circle of engagement, motivation, aspiration, progress and achievement is created.

Lesson 4: Leadership at all levels

Last but not least, effective and high quality leadership – not just at headteacher level, but at all levels – is essential. The headteacher undoubtedly sets the vision, tone and climate that enables leadership to be distributed throughout the school community. 

In outstanding schools the vision is communicated clearly and reinforced continuously to ensure consistency of purpose and implementation.

Structured opportunities for teachers and leaders are provided, both internally and externally, to develop the capacities and practices which will enable them to lead themselves and others successfully.

  • Dan Belcher is head of leadership at the SSAT. 

Further information
  • For more information on the SSAT leadership programmes, visit
  • The SSAT National Conference, entitled Innovating Learning, takes place on December 4 and 5 in Liverpool. For details see the website above or download SecEd’s official conference preview supplement at
  • The SecEd Guide To, What Makes an Outstanding Lesson can be downloaded for free at


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