Earlier this year I was sat in the feedback meeting at the end of an Ofsted inspection. The school had retained its Good status. After receiving the feedback from the lead inspector, the Chair of Governors asked what the school needed to do to get to outstanding. The response was “get more green on your RAISEonline”*. The lead inspector wasn’t being flippant, and I appreciated her honesty. It got me thinking, perhaps an outstanding school is simply a good school with better grades.
Throughout the land, school leaders are grappling with the question of how to become outstanding. Courses are delivered, meetings are held, papers are written, usually with a catchy heading like ‘good to great’. Several common themes emerge from these courses, meetings and papers. One is that outstanding schools are outward facing, serving their communities and supporting other schools. Another is that outstanding schools are less prescriptive, captured in the phrase ‘tighten to good, loosen to outstanding’. A third common theme is that middle leadership would tend to be stronger in an outstanding school, with the school’s success less reliant on a hyper-active SLT.
There’s something in all of these points, but there’s also something missing. Perhaps the best way of moving from solid to excellent is by placing subject specialism at the heart of the school. It’s easy to over-complicate school improvement, when in essence it means students performing better in the subjects that they study.
Subject specialism as a lever for school improvement starts with the curriculum: a 5-year journey in each subject which gradually exposes students to the key knowledge, skills and understanding of that domain. This means that that the Y7 curriculum does not seek to replicate the GCSE specification, but does seek to provide a solid grounding in the key knowledge that underpins the whole discipline. I’m reminded of my visit to Michaela when Jonathan Porter talked us through the Y7 Geography curriculum which gradually constructs an understanding of place through knowledge of continents, capitals, oceans and rivers; few of which will be directly tested in a GCSE paper, but all of which will enable students to appreciate the basic layout of the world around them. With this big picture in place, students will gradually gain a more granular understanding of Geography in the 5 years ahead of them.
This 5-year journey in each subject requires a coherent timetable, with sufficient time devoted to individual subjects, particularly the subjects that the majority of students will take throughout secondary school. A humanities carousel, or a curriculum which bundles subjects together in Y7 to ease the transition to secondary school, will struggle to support this 5 year journey. Specialist teachers are critical to this too.
With these structures in place we can turn our attention to CPD. Where this is done best, I see the member of SLT who leads on teaching and learning identifying the common features of good teaching that they would expect to see in classrooms. These might include the skilful delivery of challenging content, modelling of excellent work, astute questioning and precise and frequent feedback. Once these key features are understood by the staff body they can be devolved to a subject level, with teachers of the same subject deciding together how they will bring these features to life in their classrooms. Teachers need less generic guidance on the benefits of modelling, and more time to work out how to model excellent work in the units that they are about to teach. What this modelling looks like, and where in the learning process students encounter a model, might vary significantly depending on the subject.
Co-planning can be powerful here because it nudges teachers to discuss what happens in their classroom, and to consider the best way of delivering each topic, while also building accountability for the quality of lesson planning. United Learning schools devote the first day of each term to co-planning within departments. It’s trickier when a school only has one teacher of each subject. In these cases we build links between subjects at different schools, and encourage teachers to sign up as examiners and engage with the online community for their subject.
On a different encounter with an Ofsted inspector I was recently asked how we develop scholastic excellence in our students. We do this by placing subject specialism at the centre of our school improvement strategy.
A school that places subject specialism at the heart of its work would soon see plenty of green on its RAISEonline.
*RAISEonline is a document which compares school performance to national performance, with green signifying better than national achievement in your school