What makes a good school great?

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What makes a good school great? The answer to that question is one which many heads find themselves contemplating a great deal of the time. The vast majority of schools are good. Some schools are truly great. A few reach enduring greatness – they remain great and can withstand changes in leadership, and amongst their staff.

If we take purely the measures by which primary schools are held accountable – SATs results, you can see from the attached image from our unvalidated 2015 RAISE online that, judging by those measures, we have enjoyed three years of achieving progress significantly above National averages. For those non educationalists reading this blog, any green boxes signify we are achieving not just above National Averages, but significantly above National Averages. Not only that, all groups in our school achieve significantly well. Children on Free School meals achieve as well as those who are not;  boys broadly achieve as well as girls; SEN children achieve as well as non SEN children. And, in addition, that achievement has continued throughout the last three years.

It’s a very pleasing set of data; we are rightly proud of our achievements as a school. But it is only one measure of the work we do in schools. Great schools exist because they contain many, many aspects, and these exist in harmony with each other. Great schools cannot be great unless they do.

So what are these great aspects of school improvement? Here are some of my thoughts on how we ensure we build a great school here at Layton.


Great schools have leaders who, at all levels, are persistently striving for the best possible outcomes for pupils at every stage of development. They are determined for the success of pupils first, second and third. They are humble, striving for success of pupils through continually reflecting on their own and others’ practice. Their vision is clear, and pupil centred. They encourage debate on how to achieve the vision, but the vision remains uncompromising in its ambition for its pupils. They ensure the vision is simple and understood by all stakeholders. They recognise and share the best research and practice, translating this into sections which are relevant for the school’s practice. Great leaders ensure the seeds of success will continue despite changes in personnel. They attribute success to others, and, when things don’t go to plan, they look at where they could have done better.

Consider this. Was Alex Ferguson a great leader? In my mind, he was a very good leader, but he was not great.


Because he did not set up the team he led to be great after his departure. In some ways his ego and need to be seen as great came before the needs of the club. Thus, when he left, the team failed in comparison to his achievements. Surely Manchester United deserves enduring success? A truly great leader would have set up a team ready to conquer no matter who led them.

Truly great school leaders do not have ego. They are ambitious for the success of the school and the pupils.

Great leadership involves creating a culture where excellence can thrive and flourish. And selects, supports, coaches and develops staff to achieve it.


A clear vision which is uncompromising in its desire for pupil success attracts great staff. Great staff mould and shape the vision; they put this vision into practice in their teaching in their own unique ways. They are committed to a growth mindset – they accept failure as practice – and learn from their mistakes. They are self motivated by the vision the school has for its pupils. They share the ambition the leadership has for the school.

Great staff want to be great teachers, or great learning support assistants, or great administrative staff, and are reflective and resourceful practitioners. They build their own culture in pursuit of excellence and attract others towards it. They are willing to be resilient leaners and take calculated risks in their teaching. They know what they want to change, what improvements those changes will result in and change their practice to ensure it happens. They share their success and failures equally in pursuit of developing the best practice which results in continual improvement.


Schools are really great at doing lots of things. Some schools are amazing at forging international links; others for achieving great results in areas of significant deprivation; others at music or sport.

Whilst it is true that many schools are great at many things, it isn’t often you learn that there are schools great at EVERYTHING. Most schools do something better than your own school does. Even in schools which OFSTED grade as Outstanding rarely do everything well.  They do many things extremely effectively; the opposite can also be true. In schools rated as Inadequate, there will often be pockets of excellence.

Really great schools know what they do well, and they do those things brilliantly. Rather than spreading themselves too thin, the vision spells out what it is they wish to be excellent at, and they are relentless in pursuing that excellence. These schools focus on what makes the biggest difference, and find the best ways of implementing changes which have the highest impact.

Change can be positive and negative. the right changes at the right time can produce enduring greatness. The converse is also true. Knowing what not to change is as important as knowing what to change, when to change it, and how.


Great leaders engage in great debate. They disagree. They defend their point of view. But when a decision has been made, they are disciplined and rigorous in applying and evaluating it, and they act together and not seperately. Great schools know what they can be great at, what they can’t; they have great teachers who know that, and those teachers are selective and disciplined when developing their to new concepts and ideas. They study and are aware of their effectiveness. They contribute to the debate resulting from any agreed actions with conversations such as ‘This is good. That is not. It would be even better if….”

Schools with disciplined staff and disciplined actions don’t just talk. They do what is important, evaluate it, and use that as a basis for discussion.


Great schools, I feel, are completely honest about what is working and what isn’t. They know the action to take to rectify a potential error, and they take that actions swiftly and decisively. They know what to stop doing, because it isn’t working, and what to start doing. They know this because when they evaluate the data, they are completely honest. They confront errors and know why those particular elements are errors. They follow it up with disciplined action to make the required changes. They evaluate those changes, honestly and objectively.

This is what I hope our school is about. We strive to be all those things, day after day. Is it what makes a great school? I hope so. I think we are someway on that journey. Our unvalidated data says the results we achieve are excellent, but great schools are much, much more. For me, they embody the qualities described in this post. And that is perhaps part of the move to becoming a great school – knowing some of the things that will help us  to move closer to that destination. And I think that’s what really good school leaders strive to do, to get closer. Once you think you have arrived at greatness, it’s a sure sign you haven’t. You’ve stopped being objective enough.