Outstanding programme reveals features of high-performing schools

1 July 2020

The common features of high performing schools are revealed in a research report, launched today, which evaluates a new programme to help outstanding schools learn from each other and continue to improve. 

The lessons from the Growing the Top programme, run by school improvement charity Challenge Partners, could help the sector by identifying what lies behind outstanding schools’ success. 

The programme supports schools to collaborate and share what they do well, tackle common challenges, push the boundaries and drive their schools - and the education system - to become world-class. 

Despite their different contexts, an external evaluation by Dr Peter Matthews, visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education and Roisin Killick found outstanding schools on the programme had common features including: 

  • a keen focus on evaluation
  • staff development particularly through coaching 
  • good curriculum planning including the wider aspects of personal development and mental health
  • student-centred leadership, which permeated all these aspects
  • and the strong learning culture, which emerged as the dominant factor of these outstanding schools 

Systemic challenges the schools were working to address centred around differential achievement, equity and inclusion, focusing, for example, on boys and Black Caribbean students, those from disadvantaged backgrounds and students with special educational needs and disabilities, as well as post-16 issues of student recruitment, retention and achievement. The programme unveiled many insights to help respond to the social/psychological challenges for these young people, and schools on the programme made progress in addressing their identified challenges.

The Growing the Top pilot cohort of 21 outstanding school leaders worked in trios to visit each other’s schools, share strategies that were key to their success and provide reciprocal consultancy on systemic challenges they faced.

There was significant evidence of schools leaving the visits with greater knowledge about the hallmarks of excellence in other schools and a raft of ideas that could be applied to shared challenges. Before the end of the year most schools had identified steps they had already taken or were planning to introduce to help improve performance in their schools.

Matthews and Killick found, “Rich knowledge and discussions emerged from the programme, which catalysed the establishment of learning communities within the cohort of stand-out schools... In all trios, the visits either had led without delay to changes in the participating schools through adopting, or adapting to their own specific context the great ideas and practice from schools in their trio, or had influenced planning for implementation.”

Participants reported: “We left each school buzzing with ideas. The visits had an immediate impact on us all. We felt galvanised, laying ourselves bare, having the opportunity to ask questions but also to listen.” 

 Beyond the year-long programme, participants said they intended to keep in touch with the schools they had visited, and several inter-school visits had been undertaken by senior and middle leaders to follow up points of interest. 

The programme has now been extended with a second cohort of 42 more school leaders across the country in 2019/20, and with a further cohort due to start in the autumn. 

Challenge Partners is led by headteachers and senior leaders and encourages schools and trusts to work together to share their wisdom, at all stages of their improvement journey, so all children benefit from excellent practice. 

Dr Josephine Valentine, CEO of Danes Educational Trust, who helped design and lead the Growing the Top programme, said, “It’s important to recognise the value of outstanding school leaders sharing their expertise. You don't stay outstanding by standing still and I was happy to help design a programme which helps the best keep developing and improving even further.”

Challenge Partners Executive Director Dame Sue John said the programme showed that system-led improvement can really work.

Dame Sue said: “The similarity in challenges these schools are facing and aspiration for improving student outcomes, really demonstrates how despite an ‘outstanding’ label, the most stand out schools do not remain so by resting on their laurels. They strive to find opportunities to learn and develop and continue to challenge each other to improve.

“It is important to stimulate the top to rise higher so that the whole system moves upwards, to ensure our system is world-class.”