How can we create a culture of excellence in schools?

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.

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. 

Is it excellent yet?

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.

Read more steps How can we create a culture of excellence in schools?

Are any of these steps useful to you? Do you use a culture of excellence in your school? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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