Wednesday, 15 January 2014

What makes a school exceptional?

At Teach First we partner with a very wide variety of schools -the only factor that connects them is having a large number of pupils living in poverty. Some are struggling or in the early stages of improvement; others are exceptional.

Last year we commissioned a report comparing some of those exceptional schools with those getting results closer to the national average. We wanted to know what kind of support our participants were getting in the very best schools that might be replicable in others.

However the question has significance well beyond Teach First. So, even though this was commissioned as an internal report, I've decided to make it available more widely. Curee - the research agency that produced the report - kindly agreed to edit the findings slightly to make them less Teach First specific.

Before going on to some of the report's key messages it's important to say that this was a qualitative study with a small sample size (six exceptional schools and six others). There are some really interesting themes to reflect on but nothing in the report "proves" anything. This kind of study is perfect at raising questions for further investigation.

The full report can be found here. (The schools getting average results are described as "strong" because getting average results with a high-poverty demographic can't fairly be called "average").

Some of the bits I found most interesting...

The clearest finding is the value of professional development which won't be a surprise to many:

"In particular, the exceptional schools appear to have invested consistently in mentor training, not just for senior teachers and leaders. Several also provided additional mentors for specific purposes or projects. There was less mention of systematic, cross-school mentor training amongst the strong schools. In the exceptional schools group there was more evidence of a two-pronged approach: on the one hand teachers were required to participate in sustained professional learning around whole-school foci such as literacy or marking and assessment and to embed learning into practice; on the other, teachers were encouraged to identify additional and individual priorities as part of a development plan, usually (but not wholly) linked to the performance appraisal system and focused on student achievement targets." 

A focus on subject knowledge was a feature at most of the exceptional schools:

"In at least four of the exceptional schools, subject knowledge was regarded as very important across the school– and the schools consistently used subject specialists to support subject knowledge development: "[We] are a participant in the Princes Teaching Institute’s schools programme...Not many schools are involved in the programme. It’s the only thing that attempts to build subject knowledge"; "Where there are gaps internally, the school uses an external AST...subject teachers are also partnered with teachers in other schools. We have applied for funding to develop English, maths, science subject knowledge and have a partnership with the Institute of Physics to develop subject knowledge"...In other exceptional schools teachers generally felt subject knowledge to be important: "It’s vital to give depth and breadth, if you don’t know your subject how can you teach it?"; "Subject knowledge excellence is imperative. The teacher needs to break down knowledge for someone else." 

But in the "strong" schools...

"leaders and teachers firmly believed that it is pedagogic expertise rather than specialist (subject) expertise that matters." 

The exceptional schools were more prescriptive:

"Evidence about teaching and learning from the two groups seems to indicate that most of the exceptional schools were more prescriptive when it came to identifying and promoting effective pedagogy. There was also evidence that some of the strong schools were moving closer to this approach. Teaching and learning policies or frameworks in these exceptional schools explicitly articulated evidence-based good practice and usually contained plenty of suggestions for (e.g.) starters and plenaries, questioning, peer and self assessment etc."

Finally the exceptional schools seemed to have a different attitude towards leadership:

"Attitudes towards leadership seemed to the authors to differ between the two groups of schools. In exceptional schools the development and use of talent at whatever age and stage of development was seen as a major driver of quality and an issue to be pursued and nurtured with care and attention. By contrast, in strong schools attitudes to leadership tended to be more traditionally hierarchical and experience based. These more marked distinctions were rather less expected and development of these approaches in strong schools might require a re-evaluation and refinements to current beliefs and modes of operation." 


There's lots more in the report. Definitely worth a read.


  1. Tallies with my research into mentoring in Teach First schools. The diversity of approaches taken to supporting participants was the most striking feature.

  2. Yes mentoring is an area of growing interest for both good CPD and ITT provision within schools. My recent study with John Howson on Chemistry ITT flirted with it a bit (Andrew Hobson at SHU is the expert) and the subject bodies running the new ITT Scholarships provide external mentor packages for their scholars as trainees and then NQTs. I'd be interested to know more about David's research on TF mentors if it's available.

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