Why I changed my mind on what outstanding is

Jude Enright has inspired this post with her own on refusing to be outstanding. She puts into words her own story and influences on why she thinks it is wrong and I agree with every single one.

The facts and points she puts on her websites about percentages of schools being outstanding and what this means for schools trying to outdo each other in terms of exam results and intakes is worrying, but often what you hear about. School’s vying to outdo each other for a grade will compete for their own sakes, especially in this world of accountability. Linking this to Nancy Gedge‘s words here and you can see how this lack of collaboration is affecting the system’s improvements as a whole.

Personally, I spent my first two years in a school which was RI. Outcomes for children weren’t great. The culture and climate of the school was one of fear/survival. I got my head down and worked out what was on the ticklists, included them in my observations and got through. I hated it. Lesson gradings were used torturously for those who could not work out the ticklists OR who decided that SLT’s way wasn’t the way for them. When training, this was NOT how teaching was meant to be. I dabbled with thoughts of quitting, as this can’t be why I am doing this. Again, Jude tells us about the consultancy, CPD, programmes for getting to an Outstanding grade from Ofsted…really?! Not how to be outstanding but how to get a grade…


I moved to my current school four years ago now and I couldn’t get out of my routine! I was getting consistently good…however it was in the same box-ticky way I had survived in my old school. My Headteacher spent that first year trying to free me from fear (that didn’t exist in this school) and focus me on improvement.

However, with every observation came a grading, and as some of my friends in other schools were getting an outstanding, I wanted one too! I checked the different lists, I desperately tried to shoehorn things into lessons. Still, no outstanding!

I am slightly ashamed to say all the above, but think it was the first environment that turned me this way. Towards the end of my first year in the new school, I begun to see that what I was doing was wrong, that I didn’t need to get ticks on lists, I needed to do the right thing for the pupils in my class.

I went on a 10 week good to outstanding course (ironic?) to try and move away from ticklist chasing. The school running the course had fabulous outcomes for children (like, out of this world), but children would shake your hand, eloquently describe their learning, were polite and studious. The area was one of social and economic deprivation. How on Earth did they manage all this?

The Deputy Head teacher who was running the course told us. Clear Vision. Clear destination. Clear path. But best of all? Ignoring grades. They had not graded Teachers in years (many years before the rest of us), they focused on improvement for teaching and learning. They also had that clear path and vision and constantly stuck to it, something I value in SLT. It’s that moral imperative, doing what we believe to be right for the children we teach. Not listening to everything Ofsted and DfE say and put half-hearted things into place that tick a box (sound familiar?) Again Sean Harford seems to constantly share similar messages. A man that many Teachers on Twitter will know and respect for his open discussions with the profession.

The school had three questions for anything they do:

Why do it?

Who is it for?

What impact will it have?

When implementing anything new, they would look back to their vision, path and destination and question why they might do it. There were heated debates but it meant all staff had a stake and were building the school’s pedagogy, curriculum, assessment themselves. There had to be a reason for it.

If the answer was ever Ofsted, then they didn’t do it. If it was for the Teacher to have a better knowledge of this or for children to be more aware of how to improve and they could back it up, then yes they would look at it, trial it, discuss it and decide on whether it was right or not. They had to do it for the people they work for.

Again, everything was backed up with discussions about what impact it could have and why that might be of benefit. If it will take huge chunks of time for negligible impact, then what is the point of doing it? It had to have impact worthwhile of the time and effort put in.

I absolutely love these questions and these are the questions I ask myself whenever I do anything in my classroom too. As a new Middle Leader and someone who hopes to be a Senior Leader at some point, these questions will be the mantra I will want to live by. I do not want to be a Senior Leader who loses the Moral Imperative and does things for the wrong reasons, which I guess is where the current accountability system makes it almost impossible in many situations. I do feel for SLT in these situations but it is clear to me, that the school I visited have reaped the benefits from the decision to strip back from ticklists and box-ticking.

Example: Debates would happen over simple things like success criteria, which are so simple but often get used as, yes you must have them displayed in this format and that’s it – tick or no tick for you in observation. Through discussion, they would share different examples of it (building every Teacher’s knowledge and capacity), discuss when and how they might be used (collaboration, evaluation and discussion in staff meetings not waste of time on admin), improve an area of teaching by a small margin (doing this all the time takes little but worthwhile effort and can lead to sustained improvement as seen as the journey the school went on).

I think an outstanding school, leader, teacher, governor is one who steps back from simply trying to achieve an Ofsted grade. I know the removal of the four categories could help this, but I really think we need to take the leap of faith back to why we got into this job in the first place. Please, question why, who for and what impact. 

It has revolutionised my teaching and I believe it can revolutionise Teachers, Leaders, Schools too.

I believe what Shaun Allison does with his 15 minute forums builds all of the collaboration, discussion and debate around what we do with his staff and my aim as a Middle Leader is to do something similar in Staff Meetings.

Allow 10 minutes to focus on on area; success criteria, differentiation, challenge, AfL etc for sharing of good practice that will lead to discussion, debate and hopefully sharing of good practice. I would hope staff can try something that week and reflect on it the following week. I hope this way, we can move towards outstanding by being outstanding at remembering why we do this and outstanding at building capacity together and outstanding at delivering on our vision for children. Results and grades (if grades still exist) can follow as a bonus if we get the vision, path and destination right.

PS. Further reading is embedded above within the blog.

PPS. I apologise for my blogs not being visual enough or for being too anecdotal and based on experience. I’m far better at speaking in person than writing! Hope to see you at a Teach Meet or conference soon.


One thought on “Why I changed my mind on what outstanding is

  1. Stop apologising, Conor! You write with passion and conviction and this is interesting to read! ABSOLUTELY agree about the importance of clear vision. It will help you be a better leader at all levels.


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