Does your school pass the first class coee test?

20th March 2009 at 00:00

There are few pleasures in life so good as a free lunch. Common sense suggests that there is no such thing. Lunch itself rarely exists in a headteacher's day. So to get a posh lunch that was not only free but paid for by Ofsted was something of a triple whoopee. No assessment criteria were provided so I was unable to grade each course, but overall I'd say it beat the kebab van by a long way.

The lunch was a treat for heads whose schools had gained outstanding status in recent inspections. I was intrigued to see what a room full of outstanding heads might look like. Would they all have the polish of Obama's shoes and the awe of Thatcher's handbag? Nope. Like the passengers in a first class rail carriage, they all seemed disappointingly normal. So what does it take to be outstanding?

I dragged my leadership team around the country and visited excellent schools in search of the answer. You can read the books and go on the courses, but we wanted to feel excellence, to breathe its air deep into our lungs to power our own journey to the heady heights. And we hoped to pinch a few ideas along the way.

Dear reader, we discovered the common factor of excellent schools: coffee. These schools exist on Kenyan Peabody. Jars of Nescafe are confiscated at the gates with the same rigour as other schools ban knives. The cafetiere is invariably brought in by a smiling PA, clearly related to the charming receptionist who met us on arrival.

They have other things: consistent behaviour and reward systems; radically overhauled curricula with wide-ranging academic and vocational courses; brutally honest tracking systems and effective intervention; the refusal to accept failure for any child; breathlessly high expectations and energy; innovative staff development; loads of extra-curricular activities. And coffee.

These schools exude quality in everything they do. The question of whether to spend money on coffee pots or interactive whiteboards does not occur to them. They live their values, and looking after their visitors is just one way of embodying their respect for others. That's why the grounds of these schools are immaculate as well. Grass areas are fenced off, flowerbeds weeded and corridors smartly painted. Excellent schools are about detail.

They are also about leaders at all levels who know what they are doing and why. This is quite rare in education. If I go into hospital to have a triple heart bypass, I am reasonably certain that the surgeon will have practised their chopping until they are knife-perfect; they will give you drugs that have been rigorously tested and proven to work.

The surgeon will not experiment with a new technique they heard about on a course the day before, and neither will they simply repeat the same old procedures with the same instruments that they've been using for the past 20 years.

We came across a variety of cultures, behaviour management styles and organisational systems, but each of the people we met explained what they were trying to achieve, how they had constructed a system to do it (taking no prisoners along the way) and how they carefully monitored whether everything was happening as they had intended.

The systems in place invariably made the complex seem simple. This is not the same as the dumbing down that passes for much educational policy; take, for example, the sole surviving wisdom of the millions spent on the key stage 3 strategy, the three-part lesson.

Imagine our surgeon being told in surgeon school that the key to a successful appendectomy is a zippy starter (play join the dots with the freckles on the patient's tummy), a middle (whip the appendix out) and a plenary, preferably involving at least two patients doing a bit of peer assessment of the neatness of the stitching.

Successful schools recognise that teaching is a highly complex business involving highly complex young people. They devise systems and approaches that are simple enough to ensure consistency, yet with sufficient flexibility to let individuals fly.

This is what strikes me time and time again when observing lessons. On one level, teaching seems absurdly easy. Let's look at this piece of writing. This is how Dickens describes the street. Now try describing the street yourself.

In reality, the multi-layered skills being practised are as subtle as an eagle's wing. Look at how the teacher has greeted each pupil, checked the uniform, collected the homework, settled 30 individuals - and the lesson is only two minutes old.

With a mouse click, a video clip captures attention and then one activity slides into another, apparently seamlessly. Count the number of different interactions the teacher makes in the lesson. Listen to the precision of their language and how no word is wasted. Try and do it yourself and wonder humbly why it's all falling apart while they did it effortlessly.

"We keep it simple here," explained the head of one outstanding school. Not true. Excellent schools and teachers make extremely difficult things seem simple. And that's even harder than making good coffee.

Roger Pope, Principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon.

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