What makes a good school? And how would we know?

Ofsted tells us which schools are outstanding, good, satisfactory or less than satisfactory. But it measures only certain things, albeit crucial ones about teaching, learning and leadership.  League tables rank schools, based on exam or SAT results, which doesn’t tell the reader much apart from what the school’s test results are (though the reader informed about the local area or demographics generally may draw out a bit more).   Neither an Ofsted report nor a league table reveal what a child’s experience is at any given school, nor how likely they might be to emerge at 16 or 18 as a well-rounded individual prepared for citizenship and work, and able to make the most of adult life.

So what makes a good school?  I was fortunate in that I got to ask this question last Thursday, in a room at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) as part of the RSA & Suffolk County Council review ‘Raising the Bar’ (see elsewhere in this blog), which was full of experts from across education. In a small group discussion we agreed that good schools share a number of attributes: they are ‘outward-looking’, engaged in their community, can apply creative solutions to problems and offer pupils a range of curricular and extra-curricular activities. These attributes are of course additional to certain central factors: good schools have teachers in them who wish to teach and are enabled to develop as teachers, leaders who can lead, and effective personal and social education provision.  Results are a part, but by definition they are the consequence, not the driver of quality in schools.

Being ‘outward-looking’ was considered to be key in our discussion. What does it mean? A school which is outward-looking welcomes and makes links with the world outside the school gate, and seeks opportunities for collaboration. These opportunities might be with other schools, with local employers, or with schools across the globe. In each case, the school actively seeks them, and is open to people engaging with the school.

(Above and beyond this, many parents have views about the relative importance of aspects such as performing arts provision (important to me), competitive sports opportunities, and specific subject specialisms.  But this is where parental choice can come in, for those able to exercise it.)

I believe that our current obsession with league tables and exam data crowds out other, more subtle and difficult-to-measure data. This monochromatic view of existing schools is at least partly responsible for leading many parents to a wholesale dissatisfaction with the schools on offer. It is also part of the drive  for new Free Schools.  But I don’t think that it is because the existing schools are bad, but because we don’t have a mechanism, when judging schools, to take account of those attributes such as being outward-looking, or offering enriching activities, which I believe make the difference.

This of course leads to my next question: How would we know a good school?  Personally, having been able to visit a number of schools, I think there is no substitute for visiting a school, and this point was reinforced on Thursday by the headteachers and others in the small group discussion. All schools have readily-discernable differences in character and atmosphere as well as general pupil behaviour; a school ranked ‘good’ in league tables will not necessarily have that buzz which to me is readily experienced when walking through the corridors of a school I would wish to send my children to.

However, many parents don’t visit prospective schools.  I believe we should encourage all parents to visit schools – even if they are not choosing between schools but simply finding out about their ‘catchment’ school.  This way lies greater potential for engagement between school and parents and between school and community. And there will be ways of encouraging this – perhaps starting with the pupils themselves.

But meanwhile, I can’t help wondering what other ways there might be to answer this second question. Simply agreeing on those aspects which define a good school and creating a means of quantifying them, clearly runs the risk of establishing another set of league tables, as well as potentially devaluing those qualitative aspects deemed key to the experience of a school by reducing them to tick-boxes.

I’m curious about all this, and keen to explore it some more.  Doubtless my ramblings on the subject will appear above this post in due course!


2 responses to this post.

  1. Hi Emma, I think our current measurement of schools is leading us to demean the importance of the extracurricular elements of education. My kids attend a primary school run by a “tick box” headmistress who does all in her power to insure that the Ofstead is great. They run occasional 4 week after school clubs (cooking and football)…. there have been about 4 of these in the 4 years I’ve had kids at the school! Personally I think a few measures of these things would be a good idea since the tick box headmistress would then be forced to consider them. Currently the PTA is struggling to get any extra curricular activity in the school at all.

    Regarding parents looking at schools…… I think it’s very difficult for parents to know what to look for until they’ve had kids in school for a while. For example, bullying policy isn’t an issue until your child is bullied and extra curricular activity isn’t important when you have a 4 yr old and you’re just wanting them to be happy with a good reception level teacher. I feel we were totally taken in by a fantastic reception level teach but didn’t do the rest of the school justice at all when we looked round the school…… though I did have reservations about the head and she does seem to be the main stumbling block. Given that many parents do look at the Ofstead, it might help if there was a quantitative measure included of extra curricular activity and school trips (or some such)…. at least this would act as a trigger for parents looking at schools to ask about these things and may well motivate the results oriented heads to improve on these measures. I now believe they are fundamental to our kids learning and we are having to do a lot of out of school activity to make up for the lack in school.


  2. Hello Fiona thanks for your comment. I think you make a number of good points – particularly about the usefulness of a tick box exercise if it is the only thing that might lead to the inclusion of extra-curricular activities, and also about not knowing what we want from schools (or a specific policies) until we are already ‘consumers’. All the more reason to have some broader means of evaluating and assessing our schools. Good luck with your PTA work I hope you succeed – but a fantastic reception teacher is a good start!


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