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Last reviewed on 13 March 2018
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Have a look at advice from 2 of our associate experts on what makes a school 'outstanding' and how you can get there. You can also learn about the strategies one school used to move from special measures to ‘outstanding’ in the space of 3 years.

We asked Mary Myatt, our associate education expert, what an ‘outstanding’ school looks like, and for examples of strategies which schools looking to become 'outstanding' could follow. You can find her advice in sections 1 to 3 below. 

Features of an ‘outstanding’ school

A range of factors contribute to making a school outstanding. ‘Good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools are always looking to improve.

A rich curriculum

'Outstanding' schools provide a rich curriculum which:

  • Pupils can engage with
  • Allows them to ask questions

In terms of teaching, it's about the outcomes the teaching achieves rather than teachers putting on a show: how much are pupils actually learning?

Positive attitudes towards the school

Mary said that almost always when you speak to people in an 'outstanding' school – whether pupils, teaching staff, or cleaning staff – they hold the school in high regard.

There is also a sense of pride about the school in the local community. The school leadership is often humble, giving credit to others and operating an inclusive, no-blame culture. 

Pupils’ attitudes to the school and their learning are also important.

Have a look at our article with advice on developing a school vision.

Adding value

It's important for your school to be 'adding value' to your pupils. Pupils should attain highly and leave school equipped to do well in the next stage of their education or when entering employment or training.

However, analysing a pupil's starting and finishing points is a better way to see how much value your school has added. Consider:

  • How pupils have achieved what they have
  • To what extent their achievement was down to the school

Focus on the school improvement agenda

If you're looking for your school to become 'outstanding', you should focus on the school improvement agenda, driven through self-evaluation, rather than concentrating on Ofsted criteria.

‘Good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools know where they are and what they need to do to improve.

Your school improvement plan (SIP), based on self-evaluation, is then about standards rather than pleasing Ofsted. You should develop and communicate the main points of the plan to middle and subject leaders, so that everyone is clear about what your school needs to do to improve.

You should influence improvement by tapping into research and finding out what is working across the educational landscape.

Your school should not work in isolation, and your strategies should be linked to the wider picture. ‘Outstanding’ schools recognise their obligation to support other colleagues.

Read further research into the key features of effective teaching in another of our articles. 

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has a teaching and learning toolkit which summarises research evidence across different strands. It enables you to filter the different strands by cost, evidence strength and impact (in months). 

Identify and prioritise underperforming groups

We asked another of our associate education experts, David Driscoll, to suggest how you can turn a 'good' school into an 'outstanding' one. We relay his advice below. 

In summary, moving a school from 'good' to 'outstanding' involves:

  1. Identifying groups with lower achievement than others
  2. Prioritising these groups in the SIP
  3. Improving the teaching of these groups

Analyse performance data to find out which groups are underperforming

You can bring about the most immediate impact if you identify groups or subjects where achievement is not as good as others. In this way, you can target actions to improve teaching where they will do the most good.

You can use the data in Analyse School Performance (ASP) to identify groups of pupils with lower attainment levels, and the subjects in which pupils are performing less well.

Learn more about how to use data to support school improvement in the following articles:

Prioritise target groups in the SIP

Once you've identified target groups, it's important to monitor their progress. Many schools incorporate target group strategies into their SIP.

For example, in another of our articles you can find examples of pupil premium action plans.

Have a look at action plans focusing on raising boys' attainment in a further article. 

Raise achievement through outstanding teaching

Ofsted's grade descriptors for overall effectiveness show that the quality of teaching, learning and assessment must be rated 'outstanding' for a school to be judged 'outstanding' overall.

You can find these descriptors on pages 41 to 42 of the inspection handbook, which you can download from the following page:

Have a look at strategies for moving teaching from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’ in the following articles:

Case study: moving from special measures to 'outstanding'

Vauxhall Primary School is a one-form entry primary school in Lambeth.

We spoke to the executive headteacher, Chris Toye, about the strategies he employed to move the school from special measures in 2009 to 'outstanding' in 2012.

Focusing on key performance indicators to raise attainment

Chris said that to move out of special measures, the school adopted a functional mindset. It focused only on key performance indicators with the goal to improve attainment in mind.

The school ensured that extracurricular activities, such as outreach to parents and the school council, contributed to key performance indicators.

Distributing leadership responsibilities across a large senior leadership team

Another strategy the school used was to have a large senior leadership team (SLT). This meant that there were lots of people on the site who felt responsible for the school’s performance at all times.

Each person on the SLT was given a clear area of responsibility which may have been related to, for example, the curriculum, a department or the whole school.

The staffing structure at Vauxhall Primary School includes:

  • The executive headteacher
  • A head of school
  • Three assistant headteachers
  • A head of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS)
  • Subject leaders (who are also class teachers)
  • Class teachers

Chris emphasised that while this strategy worked for Vauxhall Primary School, it may not work for other schools.

Making use of leading teachers from other schools

Chris is executive headteacher of both Vauxhall Primary School and Wyvil Primary School – also in Lambeth. This is a result of Lambeth Council’s federation model for failing schools.

In this model, the headteacher of a successful neighbouring school is appointed as the executive headteacher of both his/her current school and the failing school.

This model allowed Chris to transfer good teachers from Wyvil Primary School to Vauxhall Primary School to share their expertise.


Mary Myatt is an education adviser and has experience of inspecting schools.

David Driscoll is an independent consultant and a senior partner with an education consultancy. He has considerable experience of supporting schools to analyse their data to improve achievement, teaching and leadership.

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