How can we create a culture of excellence in schools?

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Pressures on schools to perform have never been higher, with a constant focus on data, various different league table measures, exam results and the ever-present threat of Ofsted inspections at the first sign of a slip.

These might not feel so onerous if they weren’t also happening against the backdrop of severe real-term budget cuts to schools, a retention and recruitment crisis, and rapid reforms to GCSE and A-level exam specifications that have left schools scrabbling to keep up.

In this climate, there is a temptation to simply try to get through the changes unscathed, to focus on the data and getting the best possible place in league tables. But this short-term outlook is a barrier to genuine improvement as each action becomes a response to the latest crisis or government diktat.

What is needed instead is a culture of excellence that permeates every classroom, department and school; a focus not on simply getting the best grade, but on getting the best education and creating a lifelong passion for learning.

This shift in focus matters. Research from The Equality Trust suggests that countries with low levels of educational achievement suffer from higher levels of inequality. It concludes that: “The link between educational achievement and high aspiration is a key explanation for the association between low educational achievement and inequality.” This is not to deny the importance of qualifications – there is little doubt that educational attainment improves your life chances – but simply chasing data will never lead to a culture of high aspiration from individual pupils. Inequality will remain entrenched and life chances will still be dependent on your parents’ background.

I feel lucky to work in a school where excellence is expected from every student, regardless of their background. Students, teachers and visitors are greeted by a quote from Aristotle. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” This idea is central to creating a culture of excellence at a school and departmental level.

The following are the steps we have put in place to start creating this culture of excellence.


Raise your standard high

The first step is to agree on what excellence actually looks like in your subject. What can an excellent year 7 geography student do? What are your expectations of the quality of work for a year 12 student in chemistry? In our department, we start planning every new unit of work by coming up with a checklist of what we expect students to know and be able to do. We can then use this to plan the learning and create knowledge organisers for pupils to use at home. This approach means that we are always thinking about the purpose of our subject and considering the best it has to offer.

In department meetings, we share examples of excellent work that pupils have created, and log them so we have a bank of work to exemplify standards. This can then be shared with pupils, parents and colleagues so everyone knows where we are aiming.

Once high standards have been set, we can start ensuring that all students know how to meet them. The bank of excellent work is one way to do this; it can be annotated to explain the criteria it meets and then displayed and discussed.

One of the most powerful ways to support a culture of excellence is through live modelling, where the teacher answers a question themselves and explains their thought process in front of the class. The technique can be adapted so that a piece of work is produced as a class and developed through carefully planned questioning.

Varndean College in Brighton has been embracing the idea of a culture of excellence with a number of working groups looking at various pillars of teaching and learning. One group has been focusing on the use of academic language in discussions to show the standards expected. Complex, subject-specific words are used with their meanings added as an aside. Pupils are challenged on the use of colloquial words in their answers to questions and asked to respond more formally.


Over the years, I am sure I have accepted any amount of substandard work. There has often been an attitude – from pupils and teachers alike – that work just needs to be done. Now, students have started asking: “Is this excellent yet?” There is now an expectation that work isn’t finished until it is excellent, that proof reading and redrafting should be the norm, and that students will do this before handing in work.


I have seen schools around the country focus on encouraging pupils to embrace their education and be willing to work beyond the classroom. At Walton High School in Stafford, pupils are encouraged to engage in additional research to support what they have learned in class. “Each department lists a range of extra tasks that outstanding students in that subject should do, such as visiting historical sites and writing a report or reading specific books,” says Jade Slater, assistant head teacher. “Pupils who do all of those tasks achieve honours in that subject, with a celebration evening and displays on the department honours board.”

Jenn English, head of geography at Wellington School in Manchester, offers pupils the chance to enter a raffle after completing extension tasks that are designed to enrich their learning.

After the last few years of upheaval in education, it looks as though the dust may be settling. In this period of relative calm, I hope that we will see teachers and school leaders focusing not on data, but on ensuring that all children leave school with an excellent education and a lifelong love of learning.

Source: The Guardian