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Outstanding versus Good school: which is better?

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Like many families, the past couple of weeks have been slightly more tense than normal. While we’ve had the fun of the Easter holidays, we knew that at the very end of the break, we’d receive confirmation of our youngest daughter’s reception class place.

Ofsted, Oustanding, schools, school, education, school places, school ratings, school run dad, dadbloguk, dadbloguk.com, professional blogger,

It didn’t dominate the holidays, but it was a thought that was ever present, just loitering at the back of my mind. The concern was that Izzy wouldn’t get a place at the same school as her sister.

I don’t wish to say a huge amount about our situation, suffice it to say we received the news we wanted. My thoughts go out to any parent who didn’t get their preferred choice of school.

With the school places having been allocated, I got to thinking about the school application process. It’s something we will face again in a few years when we apply for Helen’s secondary school place.

I have a belief that some people will find odd. I question the wisdom of applying for schools rated Outstanding by Ofsted.

Five years ago, when Mrs Adams and I were first doing the rounds of school visits for our eldest daughter, we found ourselves underwhelmed by the Outstanding schools. They either seemed to be obsessed with league tables and the Ofsted ratings or impersonal and trading on past glories.

Parents would talk about these Outstanding schools in glowing terms, but very often without analysing what was going on inside them. Our experience of one Outstanding school left a particularly poor impression.

This place had recently been given a refit. While much fanfare had been made of this refit, it didn’t seem to go much further than the reception area (as in, where you walk in, not the Reception classrooms). This supposed refit, in my opinion, made it look more like a trendy bar frequented by hipsters in Shoreditch than an educational establishment.

Even so, parents were desperately trying to get their kids in to the place, seemingly dazzled by the presence of birch wood and polished steel in the reception area. I was more concerned about why kids were being taught in isolation in the corridors and why we were given no time to question teaching staff (the deputy head seemed quite taken aback when I did stop her and ask her opinion on something).

My philosophy is thus: an Outstanding school can only go one way. Once improvements have been made, the head is usually headhunted or seeks opportunities elsewhere. Things change, and not for the better.In a school rated Good, teaching staff are more likely to be striving for Outstanding. There is always the chance that things will get better and there are no past glories to trade upon.

I have also heard a thing or two about how some of the better performing schools treat their staff. The pressure to achieve results in immense and that won’t necessarily make for a nice environment.

Do the best teachers want to teach in an Outstanding school? Do they want the added paperwork and pressure or would they rather take a small hit on prestige and pay packet so they can dedicate more time to the children?

We have to keep in mind that we are nurturing young minds and wanting to inspire them and get them interested in education. They need to be in a pleasant, community-focused environment. You cannot put an Ofsted rating on something so valuable or measure it using SATS or other assessment criteria.

Okay, maybe Mrs Adams and I just had some bad experiences at the Outstanding schools we visited. I’m possibly being a little harsh. I can only tell you the Good schools seemed like happier places that nurtured the children.

For me, a school rated Good by Ofsted would trump an Outstanding one. As I say though, not everyone would agree with me!

I’ll simply finish by saying that if you were notified of your child’s school place yesterday, I wish them all the very best in their school career. I hope the school works out and the school serves them well.

12 thoughts on “Outstanding versus Good school: which is better?”

  1. We have a few Outstanding schools here – but none of them have been inspected again this decade.

    The school we were allocated was, and given Outstanding in 2012, but was assessed again 2 years later and dropped to Needs Improvement. However, we saw the school, spoke to locals who either worked or sent kids there, and knew this was unfair.

    We also sensed a real drive from teachers and parents to work together to do all they could to make the school the best they could. We sent our daughter there, and 2 months later it received another inspection and was raised to Good.

    We also understand the criteria for Outstanding is far more rigorous than in the past. I would be wary of trusting any school labelled Outstanding when they haven’t been inspected for years, or whether they were focused too much on keeping their rating – as it takes a lot of admin work (and resources) to maintain that.

    1. Ah, now this opens a whole can of worms. I know of a school near us that was essentially a Good school, but had an unfortunate blip in its Ofsted rating and the local authority used it as an excuse to accademise the school. The parents were deeply unhappy and it experienced a period of major turmoil.

      Anyway, yes, there is a bizarre philosophy that an Outstanding school doesn’t need to be inspected as often. It’s a common story I think: school becomes Outstanding, gets ignored, standards slip.

      As for retaining the Outstanding rating, well, I was briefly a school governor. The effort that goes into a run of the mill Ofsted inspection is immense. It really is immensely bureaucratic. I dread to think how much is invovled in keeping an Outstanding rating but it must take teachers away from their pupils for hours and hours. It’s a daft burden, really is.

  2. We are anxiously awaiting the results of my own children’s school’s recent inspection and if I’m honest I’m actually hoping they go into special measures.
    But I agree – an outstanding ofsted inspection isn’t everything. And I say that both as a teacher & a parent x

    1. Ah, the dreaded special measures! My impression is that schools get a huge amount of resources thrown at them when this happens. My kids’ school faced similar issues a couple of years before my eldest started there. A new head came in who was magnificent and we seem to have caught the upswing. Such a thing is, of course, going to worry parents but it isn’t necessarily the end of the world. Best of luck whatever happens and thanks for commenting. Great to have a teacher’s opinion.

  3. There is so much more to schools than an Ofsted rating and, actually, it’s not that easy for a school to even get a Good rating! Our primary school is rated Good (and was briefly rated lower than that), but it has been excellent over the last 12 years. The kids are happy and pretty well behaved, the teachers are likeable, the headteacher enthusiastic and the building really fit for purpose. My only complaint has been the ridiculous lack of PE.
    School is really important, but I think it is possible for parents to overanalyse and get obsessive about details which in the long-run really don’t matter. The main thing is that kids are happy and that they are given good opportunities for learning. A nicely-decorated reception area is neither here nor there (presume you mean reception as in office rather then Reception as in Foundation Stage?!).

    1. Firstly, yes, I was referring to the school office / reception area, not the reception classrooms! I’ve amended the post to make that clear.

      What you describe to me is a happy school community. You refer to your kids’ school in the first person so there’s a sense of ownership and responsibility. Even if the school did get a lower rating than Good, that must be worth a lot to a school and shows it is doing something right. Good also to hear the children were happy.

      I am, however, wondering if any school could provide enough PE for your family!

    1. Oh the effort that goes into preparing for Ofsted inspections. I was briefly a school governor so I’ve seen it up close and personal. I really feel for teaching staff. It is ridiculous and I can only imagine how much pressure there is to keep an Outstanding rating.

  4. I realise that I’m potentially a little late to the party but I have just come across your (extremely interesting) blog whilst searching for something else during my lunch and I hope you don’t mind me posting.

    I have to agree that there is much more to a school than an Ofsted rating, however…

    I thought you might appreciate another perspective on Good vs Outstanding schools.

    I have held a number of positions in various phases of education and currently work as a Deputy Head Teacher in a consistently Outstanding school. I also have a range of responsibilities that involve working in and with a wide range of schools for the Local Authority, Teaching School, the DfE and a local university where I am heavily involved in Initial Teacher Training.

    In my experience of working with a broad range of schools, teachers, pupils and leaders I would suggest that Outstanding schools sit on a continuum. This is also true of Good schools, RI schools etc…

    To give some context (to non-education based folk) on the process: An Outstanding school (to simplify the process) achieves this through strong pupil performance backed up by a series of very robust systems for managing all key aspects of the school including, of course, pupil progress, closing the gap for less able or disadvantaged pupils, monitoring of teaching and learning, behavior, safety and the welfare of pupils (among other things).

    During an inspection this is presented at length by leaders in the school (this can often last half of the entire inspection). It is followed up by inspectors with a series of activities aimed at triangulating if these systems are truly embedded and producing the results they should. This involves things like classroom observations, parent interviews, governor interviews, ad hoc conversations with teachers, pupils and support staff etc… as well as the scrutiny of pupil work. As you can imagine (and one earlier post did pertain to this) there is a vast amount of work, particularly from leadership (senior, middle, subject, department, pastoral, administrative etc…) goes into ensuring these systems are all up and running. This is where the continuum comes in…

    In a truly Outstanding school these systems and their use are precise, insightful and robust. They are embedded in the everyday practice of the school. They are not so explicit to an observer because they are just ‘there’ and teaching and learning flourishes because of them. Because of this you can usually ‘feel’ when you are in a truly Outstanding school. Teachers are not ‘distracted’ by the systems, processes and practices in these schools because they have been designed, reflected on and made to work for them and, ultimately, the pupils they serve. These schools are usually forward thinking and usually will start to collect multiple Outstanding ratings (as a by-product of their practice rather than having their practice driven by the criteria of a specific rating).

    Further down this continuum are schools that may have these systems but they are not operating (for any number of reasons) at the same level of depth and precision as their ‘more Outstanding’ counterparts. In these schools the systems and evidence required to produce outstanding results, and that coveted Outstanding rating from Ofsted, can seem cumbersome, burden the teaching staff and produce good but possibly inconsistent results for pupils. These are the types of schools that (to make a huge generalisation) ‘pull it off on the day’. Often these are improving schools or schools that have received multiple Outstanding ratings and have become a little complacent (or static).

    At the lower end of this continuum are schools that are rated ‘Outstanding’ but really are ‘Good’. Their everyday practice is Good and if you dropped in on a random Tuesday in March and undertook a learning walk you would get the vibe that they are a Good school. However, they are aware of what the criteria is to be rated Outstanding and for one or two days (depending on dates and framework the inspection was under) they are able to have staff work all night, plug a few holes, call in support from the Local Authority or some other body, pull all of the relevant evidence together and get an inspection team in a good mood on a good day, They do and say all the right things and receive an ‘Outstanding’ rating from Ofsted for their efforts before returning to being Good the next day.

    The flip side of this is the school operating at the lower end of the Outstanding continuum that have a lower year in terms of pupil attainment, can’t quite explain it, get an inspection team on the wrong day, a couple of (usually outstanding) teachers are observed teaching poorly because they don’t handle the pressure of being observed by an Ofsted inspector or HMI very well and suddenly the school is moving towards Good or plummeting towards Requires Improvement.

    The separator between these types of school really is ‘depth’. If a school is truly Outstanding you will be able to sense it. The ‘Outstanding-ness’ of the school will just be embedded in everything they do, from the Head Teacher to the Pupils and from the Teachers to the Cleaning staff.

    (There are also isolated examples of school’s that are rated Requires Improvement for very specific singular reasons when they may, in reality, be Good or Outstanding in their everyday practice)

    If you visit an Outstanding school a couple of times and you can’t ‘feel it’. They are likely a school that just ‘pulled it off’ on the day.

    A Good school that feels Outstanding and hasn’t been inspected recently probably is ‘Outstanding’ – they just don’t have the shiny badge in their reception area (yet).

    So, the difference can be subtle, or non-existent, depending on where the comparative schools sit on the continuum. However, in my experience, there is absolutely a difference between a truly Outstanding school and a Good school. To not acknowledge this is to discredit the truly exceptional practice that permeates those Outstanding schools at the upper end of the continuum.

    As a parent- I would consider if the atmosphere and ethos of the school feel right for your own child: ‘go with your gut’ and forget about the badge on the door… If it feels right, it probably is.

    1. I have to say that no one has ever written such a detailed comment on my blog! Thank you ever so much for going to such trouble.

      My experience of dealing with Outstanding schools is very much dealing with those that have had the rating a while and were complacent or even arrogant. I’m also aware my daughter’s school went through a tough time several years ago and has steadily climbed the ranks, as it were.

      You have made some interesting points highlighting some weaknesses in the Ofsted system (…not that any system can be perfect). Ultimately IO thin you are correct. Schooling your chilren is about much more than simply the Ofsted rating. You need to look at the school community, support available and so on. Ratings may be a good guide, but they shouldn’t dictate your choice.

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