A good school is one that delivers a lot more than exam results.
You can what makes a good school from its results and achievements, breadth of education, teaching, facilities and look and feel. That’s the consensus from the views of academic research, Ofsted, headteachers, and parents.
The definition matters because we throw the good school label around a bit too casually. More often than not people refer to a good school as one that has good exam results. Conversely, a bad school is one that doesn’t. As a result, we get stuck with the lowest common denominator of objective measures for a good school; exam league tables.
Opinions are shifting, however. More academic research is debunking our preconceptions. Ofsted (in 2019) shifted its inspection emphasis away from exam results. Headteachers are blogging more about aspects of good education and implementing them. Parents’ opinions are shifting, but more slowly.
Academic research challenges our preconceptions
While writing this blog, I’ve learned that some aspects of schooling I thought most about, aren’t so important after all.
Or rather admissions policy appears to have nothing to do with being a good school. Academic research picks all of the arguments apart, leaving socioeconomics and parenting as the major reason for exam success.
So, being good has nothing to do with the type of school. It doesn’t matter if it is single or mixed sex, faith or secular, independent or state, day or boarding. These categorisations may be the most important consideration for some parents. And that’s a matter of choice. But it has nothing to do with being a good school. So where next?
What does Ofsted say about good schools?
Ofsted inspects, and judges, by four criteria;
- Quality of Education, which is a function of curriculum, teaching and outcomes. Or, in Ofsted parlance, intent, implementation and impact.
- Pupil behaviour and attitudes.
- Personal development, which include broader learning such as British Values, citizenship, diversity, wellbeing.
- Leadership and management, which includes staff welfare, governance, and safeguarding.
A Good School is one that meets a certain threshold against all four criteria. Interestingly, over the last year, Ofsted has shifted its position, away from exam results, to the curriculum.
What do headteachers say?
There is convergence in what headteachers think good schools are. Many have written books and given speeches about it. In essence, they focus on three attributes; management, teaching, and pupil peer-group culture.
- Management, refers to heads and the senior leadership team, establishing a culture of learning. That means creating and encouraging the right environment.
- Teaching refers to people and methods. Teachers should be knowledgeable and constantly seeking to improve. Methods should involve individualised programmes for pupils and a variety of techniques.
- Peer-group culture refers to pupil behaviour that supports and promotes learning. So, it includes adjectives such as tolerant, respectful, engaged, challenging.
Some US headteachers (not UK I note!), also refer to parental involvement as a characteristic of a good school. Not only supporting the school through fundraising, but also setting goals and expectations of the school.
What do parents say?
In 2019, I ran a series of surveys of parents of school age children. I asked them to list five criteria that make a good school. The question was unprompted, and to parents of children of all ages.
The most popular replies were;
- exam results and destination schools.
- good teaching,
- good facilities,
- a good head teacher, and
- good pastoral care.
Quite what those replies meant is open to some degree of latitude but I’m focussing on the attributes.
I also asked what made a bad school. The most interesting answers came from those whose children had had a bad learning experience. Then the answers focussed on pupil discipline and behaviour, teaching, and the head teacher. To a parent, a good school becomes a bad one the moment it fails their child.
Opinions also varied according to the age of their children.
For instance, for parents of Reception age children, the most popular responses were pastoral care, the broad curriculum and “wow moments”.
By Years 5 and 6, the emphasis shifted significantly to exam results, destination schools, and teaching.
There was a similar pattern in secondary years. An emphasis on the broad curriculum through Years 7 to 9. But then a shift to academic results through the GCSE and A Level Years.
Five attributes that make a good school
Taking all angles in the round, here’s my take on what makes a good school. Or rather, characteristics to consider.
First, it has something to do with results and achievements, be those exam results, future schools or universities, or progress. But also sporting success, artistic success, contribution to community.
Second, it has something to do with the breadth of education, or what is taught. For some, that may mean a focussed or exam-oriented curriculum. For others it may be a specialised curriculum, with an emphasis on performing arts, music, or sport. In most cases it will mean a broad curriculum, with many subjects on offer. And extra-curricular activities, educational trips, a speaker programme, outdoor learning, and community engagement.
Third, being a good school has something to do with teaching, or how the curriculum is taught. This may include teaching techniques, teaching ratios, performance management, setting and streaming, and homework. Pastoral care is here too. And provision for pupils with special needs as well as those with a particular gift or talent.
Fourth, it has something to do with facilities, or having the physical capabilities to deliver the curriculum and teaching. For example, it’s hard to deliver a practical science lesson without a laboratory. Those facilities include sports, arts, academic, specialist sixth form, careers, as well as boarding, dining, and wrap-around care.
Finally, it also has something to do with an the intangible I refer to as “look and feel”. It’s a result of several things, but mainly people. So, it’s the head teacher, the teachers, pupils, and other parents. The learning culture, the mutual respect, the energy. The general layout and aesthetic of the buildings and grounds also affect look and feel.
Five attributes, or is it really 50?
Can you have a good school without, for example, good facilities?
Within each of those five attributes above, some schools will perform better than others. There may be some with average facilities, say, but good teaching. There may be some with good teaching but average results. Both can be considered good, if good is simply a measure of being above average, or the norm. The point is, that no school excels at everything, they all have relative strengths.
To make things more granular, those five attributes subdivide into 50. And you can weight them to your own preference. For each one that a school delivers more than the average, the better it is likely to be. And that is the basis of the Schoolsmith Score, more of which you can read about here.
What makes a great school?
I suppose, if a school excels against all 50 attributes then it could be considered “great”, but none does. The great school is an ideal, a target to aim for.
Marketing brochures often open with “Choosing a school for your child is one of the most important decisions that any parent has to make”. True.
And what school does a parent choose? A good school.
And what makes a good school? One that delivers results and achievements, breadth of education, teaching, facilities and look and feel better than an average one.
And one that strives to be a great school.