Institutional context

Does the school promote a common vision to extend educational experiences and inspire learners?

Three points about effective schools are often picked out: effective headteachers are purposeful and act as leading professionals; there is a resolute commitment to the improvement of teaching and learning; and there is shared vision to lift aspirations and provide consistency in practices across the school (Sammons, Hillman and Mortimore, 1995). A similar list has been produced in studies of outstanding schools in challenging circumstances (Ofsted, 2009).

In complementary ways, a ‘learning school’ is one in which teachers, pupils and others systematically commit to collaborative self-improvement on teaching and learning. Leaders at all levels work to discover, release, support and spread the expertise of colleagues (James et al, 2007). Pupil learning is significantly enhanced by such teacher learning. Such schools recognise the emotional intensity of good teaching and provide for teachers' well being as well as for principled, distributed leadership (Day et al, 2007).

Curriculum

Coherence: is there clarity in the purposes, content and organisation of the curriculum and does it provide holistic learning experiences?

A coherent curriculum is one that makes sense as a whole; and its parts are unified and connected by that sense of the whole. This requires expert curriculum knowledge, planning and presentation of the provision. National curricula sometimes take much of this responsibility in structuring subject content, but schools are increasingly being invited to exercise judgement within less prescribed frameworks.

Coherence and progression within areas of learning enable students to build their understanding cumulatively. In Scotland, the ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ states that: ‘all children and young people have an entitlement to a curriculum which they experience as a coherent whole, with smooth and well-paced progression through the experiences and outcomes (LTS, 2009).

Another dimension of coherence concerns the relationship across areas of the curriculum. In England, cross-curricular studies are recommended in the new primary curriculum to enable children to apply what they have learned – an approach which ‘respects the integrity of subjects but lessens the rigidity of their boundaries’ (Rose, 2009).

Pedagogy

Culture: does the school support expansive learning by affirming learner contributions, engaging partners and providing attractive opportunities?

School culture is often cited as major influence on teaching and learning. In ideal circumstances, a culture of collaboration would exist among the management and staff of the school, in which the values, commitments and identities of individuals are perfectly aligned with the teaching and learning strategies and aspirations of the institution. Things are usually more complicated – but the ways in which such complexity is handled is crucial.

TLRP’s studies of workplace cultures (Evans et al, 2006) contrasted ‘expansive’ and ‘restrictive’ learning environments. In the former, staff were engaged in meaningful work, with supportive leadership and opportunities for personal learning and progression. Another project showed how teachers’ qualities affect pupil learning, finding that: ‘pupils of teachers who are committed and resilient are likely to attain more than pupils whose teachers are not’ (Day et al, 2007). A restrictive workplace culture tends to result in more pragmatic approaches to teaching as work.

Assessment

Expectation: does the school support high staff and student expectations and aspire for excellence?

Learners benefit when significant others in their lives believe in them. Parental and teacher expectations are particularly significant for children (Hattie, 2009) and are often based on judgements about capability and potential. Expectations are thus pervasively embedded in perception, relationships and everyday life. As such, although tacit, they may be particularly meaningful to learners and influential in the formation of self-belief. Expectations are thus a form of on-going, social assessment. When applied negatively to whole groups, then cultural expectations can present significant barriers to learning.

Because of its significance, raising expectations is a common recommendation for school improvement. To be effective, such expectations have to be authentic, because a connection has to be made with the self-belief of learners. Expectations are thus inevitably linked to the leadership of the school as a whole, and to the culture of the communities which it serves.