Great Schools: What makes them great?

Closing the Gap between Vision and Reality: Some practical ideas for the year ahead

A Great School is where a deep sense of morality underpins the direction that children and professionals travel – sharing, empathising and co-constructing respective learning journeys together.

It’s easy for us all to say that it’s the children who matter the most in our school, but in reality much harder to ensure that our actions are genuinely and meaningfully benefitting our children. A reality check can often be to see if a particular vision or policy applies equally to both children as well as staff and the wider community. For example, if we aspire to empower children to be lifelong learners, then are we living out that policy through our commitment to consistent professional development and empowering learning through community engagement?

One of the common strengths of great schools is the tangible impact that community engagement has on the children. Whilst we all have various community events, ranging from fetes and fayres to services and sales, these are usually centred around meeting the funding or socio-spiritual needs of the children and school, rather than ‘giving’ to the community. Consider for a moment whose needs your community events serve.

A superb example of mutual benefit can be found at Owslebury Primary School; a small rural village primary school in Hampshire. There has been a concentrated focus on developing lunchtime; not because there was an issue, but instead because the team saw opportunities to extend learning beyond the curriculum. A number of actions have taken place which have been largely led by Learning Support Assistants and Lunchtime Supervisors. First, the introduction of a focus on table manners and behaviours – with exemplary behavior being rewarded both individually and collectively. The manners taught build on the traditional rules about eating with closed mouths and quiet voices, but then start to explore the art of mealtime conversation, healthy choices, clearing up our own spills and caring for others. For individuals showing superb manners, children are rewarded with a lunchtime place for themselves and a friend at the Golden Table – a kind of Top Table with special cups, plates and treats to complement their school dinner or packed lunch. For collective excellence, children’s ‘houses’ earn group rewards each week. One of the most significant areas of impact has been the vertical collaboration – KS2 children teaching EY and KS1 children about good table manners for example, and also the noise levels in the large hall have reduced which has enabled a much calmer and less intimidating environment for the new Reception children in their first few months at school.

Consequently, and building on the importance of learning the social aspects of mealtimes, the school has introduced Community Lunches, whereby villagers of all ages are warmly welcomed into the school to enjoy school dinners with the children. What follows is a shared exchange of knowledge; with villagers learning about ‘the youth’ and what the experience of school today is really like as well as having much welcomed companionship over a shared meal. Children in turn learn about the history of their school and local area, and get to know more about local people, geographies, history and lifestyles. Featured recently by the BBC this has been a high impact activity for both the school and local community alike, and importantly, connects people who would not otherwise have an opportunity to engage meaningfully with the school.

A Useful Question is to consider who lives or works near to your school but whom you don’t currently engage with – significantly moving thinking beyond parents. Then, consider how they might benefit from engagement with the school – for their personal or working needs, and perhaps, as a staff activity, use your long term plans and topic themes to see where local knowledge or expertise might complement existing provision, but more importantly, play a moral role in supporting wider community needs.

A Great School looks beyond walls and structures; out of classrooms and buildings, out of catchments, stakeholders and staffing bodies to the wider landscape. 

With many schools needing to find more space to accommodate additional children and needs, yet on a limited budget, much attention has turned to how the wider school site is used. We are no longer restricted to static ICT suites, books all migrating to a single library or ponds being the limit to animals on site. Many newer schools such as Four Dwellings Primary School in Birmingham have had the good fortune to have learning-centric (and award winning) architecture integrated into the build with roof classrooms and flexible communal spaces. But we are also seeing that schools are becoming increasingly creative with uses of space in order to extend learning opportunities for children beyond the traditional curriculum. Christ Church SW9 in Brixton has a superb approach with walk-in greenhouses being made out of plastic 1litre lemonade bottles, and herb and vegetable gardens as separators instead of playground walls. Perhaps most creatively of all the school has a natural kiln and city farm on it’s roof – no small achievement for a ‘70s style building.

Sacred Heart RC Primary in Westhaughton, as showcased last year during their Prime Ministerial visit, has raised the bar with thinking about outdoor learning offering opportunities to extend and excite the traditional curriculum; through sculptures which aid creative writing, sheep onsite providing wool for art and design work, firepits bringing history alive and allotments enlivening science work.

Another superb example, particularly for Victorian buildings with awkward ceiling heights can be found at South Rise Primary School in Greenwich where lengths of voile are hung across areas of classroom and communal space to create learning spaces and more focused areas. Traditionally this kind of fabric use has been a budget friendly solution to create cosy reading corners or dramatic role play areas, but it can also play a vitally important role in supporting children who are easily distracted, those who need work zones, and for younger or higher need children who can be intimidated by vast spaces and high ceilings.

A useful activity might be to consider what the physical and logistical challenges facing specific groups of children are – perhaps as part of Pupil Premium provision planning, vulnerable group analysis, or targeted challenges such as your white working class boys and the challenges your existing learning environments present them with. Then, what would the ‘money no object’ solution be? This often raises ideas which can be more realistically achieved using creative means; just think about that plastic-bottle-made greenhouse. Space doesn’t need to mean cost – particularly if there are ways to engage the school community in collecting, building, decorating, or repurposing – activities which often bring people together.

A Great School is where Children – both those on roll, and those in other schools, towns and countries – are ultimately and unapologetically, at the heart of every action. 

Dame Vicki Paterson, Executive Headteacher of the Brindishe family of schools says that ‘if you focus on looking after the children in your school then Ofsted will look after itself’. Whereas Sir Michael Wilkins from Outward Grange Trust said that ‘The Ofsted Framework is a great starting place for self-auditing and planning school improvement’. Importantly neither see Ofsted as an end goal or an outcome, and both assume excellence; using Outstanding or whichever label it happens to be called at the time as an assumed pre-requisite to their real ambitions for the school.

A Great School is where ‘we’ and ‘our’ describe ambitions and actions. It is where excellence is both an assumption and a springboard. 

A useful activity to explore with SLT and T&L Governors is to timeline each of the Ofsted Framework descriptor bullet points at three points in time; your school as it is today, your school at the point of Outstanding, and your school in 5 years time. Key Question: What is the common theme of the journey or trajectory that makes you take? Then, taking on board the actions that need to happen, what do children, teachers, leaders and governors each need to do? A good checklist is ensuring that each of these groups of people have an active role in development – either through outcomes, actions, or both.

A Great School is where local, national and international applies both to the curriculum, but also to professional development, family engagement, and to the contribution to (and from) our wider teaching profession. 

In the Autumn Term we see the expanse of the year stretching before us so now is the time to put into place the actions that will make a difference for the children and staff of this year. With the rising of the College of Teaching and the success of international events such as the Festival of Education, collaboration has never been more important or more achievable. Action: Consider today, how you will encourage collaboration between children, between staff, between governors and for your own professional development this year.


Fiona Aubrey-Smith

Founder of One Life Learning: Connecting Expertise Together.


[First published by Headteacher Update magazine September 2016]


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