The Outstanding School

November 22, 2010

For a short while I worked at Mallon Park School. OFSTED had rated it as “outstanding”. Its exam results were a little better than average (i.e. a lot better than all the other schools I have worked in), but given its intake this was a significant achievement. This was a school which served a very deprived community but achieved far more than similar schools. It was better than the other schools I have worked in, but it was still a battleground school.

It differed from my other schools in the following ways:

  • SMT had real presence around the site. On every lesson change-over they would come out of their offices and go to the main thoroughfares of the school. During lessons they would pop into classes to keep an eye on students. They were known to, and feared by, the students.
  • SMT were reliable. Not once during the time I was at the school did I feel a member of SMT had lied to me. Not once did I feel that something I had referred to SMT had been ignored.
  • The conflict between the key departments and management did not exist. There were members of SMT and Heads of Year teaching in, and helping to lead, all the important departments.
  • There was much better targeting of resources at key students. The results owed a large amount to correctly identifying which students would affect results and using early entry to ensure that as many of them as possible were prepared for their exams by the most senior teachers. There was a lot of “gaming” of the exam system, with exam boards being carefully chosen for maximum advantage.
  • Those aspects of poor behaviour that senior management could confront around the school were far less of a problem. Uniforms were largely excellent. I never saw a mobile phone in a student’s hand while I was there.

Some bad features of the school system persisted even in an outstanding school:

  • A significant number of incompetent but ambitious middle managers, failing to do their job and blaming classroom teachers for their failings. This was particularly noticeable in the case of some of the year heads who simply couldn’t teach and had no idea how to support teachers.
  • An SEN department making excuses for bad behaviour. My description of INSET on SEN came from Mallon Park.
  • Low academic and behaviour expectations for pupils. Outside of the current crop of target students expectations were shockingly low, particularly for the least able. Some of the bottom sets contained students who simply were not used to learning in lessons, and were quite shocked when I expected them to start working without first being nagged by a teaching assistant. Behaviour was still a massive problem for new staff.
  • High levels of bullshit in teaching practice. The whole school were initiated into “Kagan Structures”. One department used WALT, WILF and TIBs. “Assesment For Learning” was widely interpreted as meaning “using mini-whiteboards” and “getting kids to tick boxes”.

The OFSTED designation “outstanding” has been used more and more in recent years. My experience of an outstanding school was that it was significantly better than the “good”, “satisfactory” and “notice to improve” schools I had worked in previously.  However, I don’t believe there was one teacher in the entire school who would have considered, even for a second, sending their own kids there. “Outstanding” probably does indicate that a school is not the usual disaster area. However,  often (but not always) it is still only good enough for other people’s children.


  1. “Assesment For Learning” was widely interpreted as meaning “using mini-whiteboards” and “getting kids to tick boxes”.

    what’s wrong with mini-whiteboards?

    • If the behaviour of the kids (and their respect for property) is good enough then by all means use mini-whiteboards.

      What I object to is the way they are being forced on teachers in situations where they are not worth the hassle. Formative assessment can happen in many ways, and while teachers should use formative assessment, they should not be forced to use mini-whiteboards every single time.

      Some examples I could give:

      1) I observed a top set RE lesson where students were instructed to write “arguments for and against the existence of God” on mini-whiteboards. These were high achieving (and highly coached) kids. A lot of them were writing mini-essays that were virtually unreadable. Writing in their books (and marking it later) would have been far more useful.

      2) I was observed with a class of 8 students in a small classroom. I could (and did) walk round and see all of their work. I also used quite extensive verbal questioning involving all of the students. Yet, I was told in feedback that I had not used formative assessment and should have used mini-whiteboards.

      3) I have seen PGCE students struggle to manage classes with mini-whiteboards and also spend hours trying to sort, clean and find a full set to use. It is not something that all classes are receptive to, yet they were convinced that they were required to try it.

      The hype around mini-whiteboards is just ridiculous. They can be useful but they should not be obligatory and their should not be a single “formula” for how to teach that everyone has to follow.

      • It’s really weird how this goes a lot of the time, in education – something is useful sometimes, then gets jumped on as something we should do ALL the time because it’s SO useful.
        For example, research showed that individual academic mentoring helps underachieving pupils to catch up to the standard expected at their age. So at my school it was decided to give individual academic mentoring to ALL the kids, because imagine how SUPER it would make the ones who were ALREADY doing well!
        Blessedly, actual individual mentoring did not last long, because it was a huge amount of extra work and our SMT is still on nodding terms with reality, but now, form tutors supposedly mentor their whole form class together… and the underachievers do not, as a matter of course, get an actual individual mentor.
        I could go on about the ‘Learning 2 Learn’ programme, but I’d rather just roll my eyes and snort, as the kids do.

        • We’re just about to bring this in at our bottom-of-the-league school. A personal tutor/mentor for every child. What this has been distilled into is that the form tutor will be errrr….. mentoring every pupil in the form. Not quite sure what will be different or improved but am sure it will mean tons of extra paperwork, meetings, self-justification and accountability, and for very little actual improvement in behaviour or grades.

          • The result is just pants. The ‘mentoring’ sessions are used to deliver generic material on career choices and personal values, and are frequently appropriated for assemblies or catching up on admin, which sends a clear message to staff and students about what’s REALLY important.
            If we actually did just identify kids who were floundering and partner each one up with a confident, experienced teacher who would meet with them frequently and keep them on track, that would be brilliant. Ideally, said teacher would get some extra pay for taking on mentoring responsibilities.

            • I seem to recall that the studies show that personal (as opposed to subject-based) mentoring doesn’t work.

              (I don’t know why I’m bothering to say this. Since when did anyone actually look at empirical research before implementing a policy?)

            • Don’t think there’s any space to reply, but thanks for your considered response! There’s lots of hype going on at my school about mini-white boards. They’re good for my subject, at certain times, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend they replace verbal questioning or writing in books!

            • Education research often comes across as rather mad to me. In New Zealand, one of our pre-eminent education researchers is Professor John Hattie. Out of one side of his mouth, he says that class size does not matter. Out of the other side, he says that individual feedback from teachers makes the greatest difference to student achievement. Who are these teachers who can give effective individual feedback to everyone in a class of 30-40 children often enough to make a difference?

            • This is getting too thin. I’ll reply below.

  2. BBC News, June 2010

    “Fewer schools in England are being judged outstanding compared with recent years and more are being rated as weak.”


    I have worked in many different schools as supply and long-term, and my experience is that often the Ofsted report bears little or no resemblance to what the school is actually like. I cannot believe some of the schools that are rated “good”. Others doing a brilliant job are put in the same bracket when, to me, they are doing far better. The Ofsted comments on behaviour, in particular, are often at odds with the reality of the school.

  3. I am fortunate to have worked in two schools which were labelled as outstanding. The first school was similar to that described above with a charismatic headteacher and strong SMT who ran a tight ship and with a disciplinary system that was simple and followed by everyone. It was not a perfect school; the headteacher could take a dislike to someone and make their life very difficult, and there were still complaints about how the poorly behaved pupils were treated (reward trips to McDonalds going down particularly badly).

    The second school was outstanding mainly due to it being an oversubscribed church school. Whilst this had an effect on the selection of the pupils (and made it far more middle class in intake than the surrounding area) it had a massive effect on the selection of parents and meant that the school would be fully supported in any disciplinary actions by 99.9% of the parents. It also meets the final criteria mentioned in the post – the majority of staff snet their children to this school (I teach children of four of my departmental colleagues this year)

  4. “In New Zealand, one of our pre-eminent education researchers is Professor John Hattie. Out of one side of his mouth, he says that class size does not matter. Out of the other side, he says that individual feedback from teachers makes the greatest difference to student achievement.”

    I quite like a lot of Hattie’s work. It provides solid evidence against a number of fads and trendy ideas. However, I think you are right to suggest that some of his conclusions seem incompatible. I would go further, I think that at times he treats as distinct points questions that need to be answered together. So for instance, he concludes that setting doesn’t work, but that “accelerating” the most able does. It is hard to see how or why anyone could or would do one without the other.

  5. Reading this late, but puzzled by part of it. Why do you put ‘”gaming” of the exam system’ in the good list, rather than the bad list? Surely such ‘gaming’ is precisely what’s been fuelling all the dumbing down of teaching which you argue against in many of your other posts?

    • It’s not a good and bad list. It was a “the same as other schools” and “not the same as other schools” list. At the time I hadn’t seen anywhere near as much gaming in other schools. Now it would probably be in the other list.

      • Thanks for clearing that up. I was confused by the fact that everything else in the first list seemed to be pretty positive.

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