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The Mossbourne way is not the only way to be an ‘outstanding’ school

The Mossbourne way is not the only way to be an ‘outstanding’ school


  • Heath Monk
  • guardian.co.uk, Monday 28 May 2012 14.30 EDT
Children line up at Mossbourne community academy in Hackney.

Children line up at Mossbourne community academy in Hackney. Its rigorous attention to uniform and behaviour is just one of the ways it has developed its reputation for excellence. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian

The start of Sir Michael Wilshaw’s tenure as head of Ofsted has been full of controversy. Stories of low morale among school staff and incompetent inspectors have hit the headlines. Because of this, we risk missing the central point: there are still too many children, especially in disadvantaged areas, who are being failed by the system.

Wilshaw’s vision is that no child should be denied academic success because of their postcode or family background – and rightly so. For too long, it has been accepted that a school’s outcomes are based largely on its intake. This socio-economic determinism has led to a culture of excuses. Nevertheless, the drive for schools to become“outstanding” as quickly as possible may have side-effects that we should take action to avoid.

School leaders have a profound effect on what happens in every classroom and corridor. Over time, schools reflect the attitudes of their leaders. At its best, this leads to a diversity of approaches. Mossbourne community academy in Hackney, Wilshaw’s former posting, has developed a reputation for its structured environment and rigorous attention to uniform and behaviour. Visitors are struck by the silent lesson transitions and the use of a mantra at the start of every lesson, when every child affirms their readiness to learn.

The school is perhaps less well known for its commitment to creative teaching and for its use of small, highly inclusive nurture groups to help children with low levels of basic literacy to catch up. Despite the caricature that is presented of a militaristic regime, the students are filled with a sense of joy that is ever-so-slightly unexpected.

The best schools are not easy to define – their values and cultures have grown over time. However, increased external pressure is forcing many schools to try to shortcut this process – by simply importing successful practices from outside. Many job adverts for senior posts specify that the applicant “knows what outstanding looks like”. Schools are seeking access, through new appointments, to an outstanding blueprint that they can replicate.

Looking for “outstanding” in this way may create short-term benefits, but it also has significant drawbacks. Classroom teachers who are ambitious will be drawn to schools that are judged“outstanding”, giving a wide berth to struggling schools that need them most but are at risk of being seen as career black holes. The process of testing one’s teaching and leadership in a challenging environment and discovering – sometimes painfully –what works is, I believe, much more important than simply experiencing a great exemplar that someone else has created.

Ultimately, this tendency to transplant pre-existing practices without their underlying values could lead to a static idea of what an “outstanding” school looks like, endlessly recreated across the system, but without the passion and life-blood that infused the original. There’s an awful lot that can be learned from Wilshaw’s example at Mossbourne academy. But there are many other schools that have taken a different approach that reflects the values and beliefs of their leadership teams and communities. And there are effective ideas and practices that could be taken from all these schools and moulded to fit the context and the culture.

I’m not for a second saying that schools should not be held to account or have the highest of expectations. But it is essential that the strategies used to achieve those standards are allowed to develop, based on evidence and on the experience of schools and school leaders finding their own way. “Outstanding” should come in all shapes and sizes, and must not be turned into an off-the-peg standard, like an IKEA bookshelf. In school communities, it’s how you build it that counts.


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