The path to ‘Outstanding’? You won’t find it in the Ofsted framework.
In a regulated sector, where the outcomes from inspection come with high stakes, it’s understandable that we’re all keen to see what it takes to achieve the top grade in one if not all judgment areas.
I’ve learned, over many years of working across all levels of the education system, that the path to achieving ‘Outstanding’ is less well-defined and understood than it ought to be. The good news? Getting there – whilst tough – is far more within your control than some might have you believe.
I’ll start with a word of caution. There’s a reason why Michelin Star chefs occasionally hand their rating back, citing the pressure that comes with it for them and their team. In education, handing a grade back isn’t an option sadly, so it’s important to plan carefully for what you need to do to maintain the grade beyond achieving it. I’ve seen too many miss this key investment planning step. There are also the potential ramifications of dropping a grade in the future to consider as you roll up that banner on the front of the building. Grades aren’t finite. I’ve spoken on more than one occasion about how annoying it is to see a fall in grade used as a headline in the trade press. Ofsted grades are thankfully timebound so dancing on the (temporary) grave of a provider who once held a grade 1 but dropped in their most recent inspection feels sensationalist.
Anyway, enough doom-mongering.
Recently, one of the academies in the regional hub I chair received an overall Outstanding grade. There were two things I reflected on. Firstly, the lead inspector recognised receiving the grade won’t result in us taking our foot off the pedal. It won’t because our team knows what is needed for the under-served families we work with. The grade is a by-product of this drive, not the goal. Secondly, my concern turned to our other academies, thinking through how to manage the pressure this creates for them to do the same. It worries me because their starting points are different and comparing one to the other is unhelpful to the staff and children.
With all that out of the way, if you’re still keen to make the top grade, here are the three key things I’ve learned.
1. You won’t achieve ‘Outstanding’ by looking at how other providers got there. Whilst it’s useful to hear their experience or see what is written in their report; their context isn’t your context, their ambition isn’t your ambition, their learners aren’t your learners and, perhaps most importantly, their culture isn’t your culture. It’s a little like successive government ministers clocking up air miles to see Finland’s schools or Germany’s apprenticeships. Yes, of course, we can learn from good practice but what we can’t do is lift their model in full and superimpose it on ours. It will fail because we must consider both the complex external environment in which we operate and our own vision, culture, team, and curriculum offer.
2. Using the Ofsted framework as the backdrop to inform your approach to quality is very helpful. It frames the questions you want to ask of your provision. However, be careful not to use it as a bible as it will only take you so far on your path to brilliance. Use it as a supporting tool to help you to realise your vision but don’t let it be the driving force behind it. If you do, you become vanilla, lacking the flavour that makes you successful. Which leads me nicely to my final point.
3. Outstanding provision comes from having a crystal-clear understanding of what you want to achieve as an outcome of what your labour market or community needs from you,
articulated as ambitious performance indicators that everyone in your organisation is lined up behind, and a relentless, unwavering focus on delivering them. It comes from a culture of honest, deep-rooted self-improvement. The lightbulb moment when I’m working with providers is often when they begin to own the logical flow through the Education Inspection Framework which means when they’re next self-assessing, they’re judging whether they have achieved what they set out to deliver, not just regurgitating the words in the framework. If your SAR could be anyone’s SAR when you read it back, you’ll see what the problem is.
I hope this goes some way to explain why there’s a good reason you might hear an Ofsted inspector say it’s hard to define what Outstanding looks like, beyond the basics of what it shows in the handbook. This may seem a cop-out, but it isn’t. Why? Because being outstanding/ amazing/ excellent/ brilliant must come to life through your eyes and not theirs. The main question to ponder therefore is what does outstanding look like to you and the people you serve?
It’s a bit like that game when you whip a tablecloth away and all the crockery stays steadfastly in place. If you think of the Ofsted framework as the tablecloth you won’t go far wrong. This mindset has the added benefit that it stops you from trying to reinvent your provision the next time the tablecloth changes colour.
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