What does exceptional achievement by pupils look like?

I am about to deliver some training for Heads of Subject at a highly selective school on observing and evaluating lessons so that they can help ensure all their pupils receive a rich experience. Not unreasonably, they have asked me to focus on the needs of their very able pupils - typically within the top 10% of the national ability range. Such a question makes me think quite carefully as there is nothing more irritating than attending training (or lessons) that do not meet the needs of those in attendance.

A bit of background: independent schools, such as the one I am going to, are inspected, not by OFSTED but by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI). The ISI approach (known as a framework in the jargon) is very different to OFSTED. ISI inspects two main things - once you get the legal requirements for schools out of the way. These are the quality of the pupils' achievements and their personal development. The inspection looks to evaluate the quality of both and, most importantly, suggest how a school might improve. Typically, the inspectors are fellow teachers, Heads and others from other independent schools led by a ReportingInspector - all are trained in what they have to do. Over four days, the inspection evaluates how well the school is achieving its aims for the pupils in the two key areas.

I might write another journal entry about the advantages and disadvantages of the ISI approach but that is for another time. Suffice to say that observing and talking with pupils about their experiences is at the heart of the framework; as is observing and evaluating lessons. Here is the rub for this school and the training I am providing. Within the ISI framework, the topmost judgment for pupils' achievement is "exceptional"; this is one step beyond "excellent". Hence this school is wanting to know what "exceptional" looks like.

In observing and evaluating lessons we are looking at the two factors and how the quality of teaching affects them. Our primary focus is on the pupils. In other words, it's the outcomes for the pupils which are important not the manner in which they are achieved. Hence, under "achievement" we are looking at what pupils know and can do and under "personal development" we are looking at how they learn and the personal characteristics they portray related to learning. As you can tell, this approach is equally applicable to pupils of any ability.

So what are some of the indicators of excellence when watching lessons? I suggest they might include:

  • All pupils understand what is required of them and are able to undertake it with success; they make excellent progress
  • All pupils show highly positive attitudes to learning including initiative, independence, perseverance, co-operation & enjoyment
  • All pupils are able to synthesise, evaluate and apply reasoning and subject specific skills and/or knowledge at an appropriate level
  • All pupils are highly motivated and keen to challenge themselves
  • All pupils are inspired, challenged and supported by the teaching and set high expectations for themselves.
  • All pupils feel their needs are being met

In every class there is a range of pupils of different abilities and needs. Some are highly able so need specific stretch & challenge, some have specific learning needs or disabilities and some might not have English as their first language. Often the difference between "good" and "excellent" is that in "good" lessons most but not all pupils are fully and effectively engaged whereas in "excellent" lessons they are. So that covers "excellent"; what about "exceptional"?

Well, I suggest, some of the key factors here are the pupils' skills for learning, their attainment in examinations or tests, their rates of progress and their attitudes and behaviours. The other key factor is how ambitious the school is in its aims and how well these are fulfilled. You will rightly protest that these are factors to take into account for all pupils, surely? You are correct. So the judgment that has to be made is the level to which all pupils in these areas are successful and how demanding the school is of its pupils.

Schools have all sorts of aims and it is often difficult to distinguish one school from another. How ambitious are these two sets of aims when set out by individual schools in England? It's not hard to tell!

"...we combine traditional values with a forward-looking and vibrant learning environment where young people are nurtured to become considerate, confident and well-rounded individuals."

"... a school which fosters independence and individuality, the school is managed with a light touch and relationships are respectful yet relaxed. The pupils are encouraged early to take charge of their lives, to be able to embrace the unexpected and to become resilient, self-reliant young people. .... school is about working together and learning from mistakes as well as successes. Pupils are encouraged to be themselves: they are not expected to be perfect. Above all, this is a place of boldness, warmth, creativity and fun, where the search for precision and beauty matter and where humour and laughter are never far away."

The second school is being much more ambitious for its pupils than the first. In a very real sense, it is setting itself a significantly more taxing challenge. The first school couldn't probably judge the achievement of its pupils to be exceptional as its aims for them are not exceptional. In the second case, the aims are certainly ambitious so the question is to what extent they are fulfilled? The most successful fulfilment of this school’s aims in terms of the pupils' achievements in lessons, activities, examinations, work books, progress relative to their starting points and in their learning and attitudes would surely lead towards the conclusion of it being "exceptional"?

Achievement might be indicated by both exceptional performance relative to their ability in tests or examinations such as GCSEs and A levels or awards such as CREST, EPQ, Olympiads etc. Equally, it might be indicated by the subject knowledge and skills they display in lessons such as a Year 6 pupil writing an original script for a play which displays wide cultural references, an expert understanding of characters and staging well beyond the age-related expectations. Equally, it might be indicated by significant numbers of pupils performing in sport or music at a national and international level. Or every pupil in the school playing a musical instrument at a level above normal aged-related expectations. All of these accompanied by pupils who are successful in taking personal responsibility for their learning and having highly developed skills well beyond those normally expected for their age - could they achieve at such a high level if they did not?

It's important to note that the "exceptional" accolade is not reserved exclusively for those of high ability. Indeed, we expect those of high ability to achieve highly so their achievement, by definition, would be satisfactory if they did so. It's perfectly possible for pupils of all abilities to achieve "exceptionally" as the measure is always relative to where they start from and the rate of progress they make.

Let's hope I can get this over to my colleagues in the training and that they appreciate it.

By Mike Buchanan, Headmaster, Ashford School