Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Make it outstanding

strongman hammer game

What makes an outstanding lesson? Ofsted certainly hasn't provided a definitive answer, although it expects school leaders to identify one when they see it. Tony Thornley offers his criteria, along with some thoughts on what denotes good lesson observation.

Are you a pig weigher?

Pig weighing has become an industry in schools since the introduction of the new Ofsted inspection framework.

School leaders are now expected to have an intimate knowledge of the quality of teaching and learning in the school. Hence the need for weighing - otherwise known as lesson observation. (Apologies for the pig analogy to all my teaching friends.)

Most schools have become quite proficient at it. Of the many which I have had the privilege to visit in the last 18 months, nearly all have been able to provide a pretty accurate picture of the quality of teaching. Teaching and teachers are being scrutinised as never before, but is the pig being weighed to death?

I'm not against lesson observation - far from it. But before getting carried away with the idea that this must be a good thing, it's worth reflecting a little.

  • Are we weighing the right things?

  • Is all the weighing really necessary?

  • Are our weighings consistent?

  • And finally, having done the weighing, what do we do about the poor pig's diet if it seems to be lacking?

This article started off with the intention of tackling the last issue and trying to define what 'outstanding' means. However, in endeavouring to get to 'outstanding', I feel I need to touch on the other questions first, if only to establish a common understanding of lesson observation.

Are we weighing the right things?

Some schools are. The skill in observing lessons is, under normal circumstances, to focus on learning. To ask the students, and oneself, what progress students are making using their work, the teacher's assessments, and the learning in the lesson as guides.

Much of this is art, not science. Good teachers, in any case, provide the answers for the observer. Their questioning and their marking give them, you and, most importantly, the students, constant feedback on progress.

Focusing on student progress makes it much easier to evaluate what the teacher has done, and is doing, to achieve the progress which you see. Pig weighing schools tend not to get this far. They concentrate on the more obvious features of teaching, like lesson objectives, three part lessons, behaviour management and so on. These things are, of course, important but only as far as they lead to effective learning. And you can have effective learning without any of them.

There is, I think, one small exception to the focus on learning. It applies to schools which are in trouble, where the overall quality of lessons is poor - say more than 10 per cent of lessons are inadequate.
In such schools, it is probably better when observing to concentrate on two or three key elements of teaching which will secure greater consistency of experience for students. These could be the factors mentioned above, but may include others; it will depend on the school's situation.

There are two main reasons for adopting a more teacher-centred approach in a struggling school. The first is that learning is usually worse than teaching, as students' attitudes are likely to be poor. The weakest teachers need simple strategies if they are to survive, let alone improve, and, initially, it is better to focus on these when observing.

The second is that consistent teaching strategies are one of the keys to raising standards in poorly performing schools. Persuading everyone to use the same basic strategies will help all staff, especially the weakest (but this is not the same as saying that everyone has to teach the same way).

However, even in the most difficult schools, you will need, sooner rather than later, to switch your focus to learning, as that is the end product.

Is all the weighing necessary?

Schools are, rightly, beginning to establish routines about who will be observed, when and by whom1. This is good, especially if those routines reflect effectively distributed leadership. It requires those who observe to understand how to do it, and also how to provide constructive feedback about what they have seen.

However, not many schools seem to have reached the point of asking themselves if they need to observe all teachers equally, and what they should do with their observations. There is clearly no point in continually observing lessons just to say that they've been observed and you know how good teaching is.

The best SEFs use the observation records to provide an analysis of the main strengths and weaknesses of teaching and to say how the weaknesses are being addressed. Good practice is to link this evaluation closely with the school improvement plan and performance management.

In the longer term, observation can then be differentiated, with fewer observations of the best teachers. This allows more time and support to be given to help the weaker teachers improve, and the better teachers can provide the vehicle for sharing professional good practice.

Are weighings consistent?

Ofsted has provided good guidance2 about how to judge lessons and teaching. They define good and inadequate in   some detail, and leave you and me to interpolate satisfactory and extrapolate outstanding.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the qualitative nature of the criteria, most schools I work with are pretty good at making accurate judgements over the range of good to inadequate. The challenge comes at the top end of the scale, where the frequency of outstanding lessons is less, and the privilege of seeing such lessons is limited to a lucky few.

HMCI's 2005-06 Annual Report said that teaching and learning were outstanding in 5 per cent of secondary schools. If that is reflected in what is seen in classrooms, as it is likely to be, only one lesson in 20 was outstanding last year. Personally, I've only seen a handful. So, whilst there is guidance to support consistent judgements, it is not easily translated into effective practice, especially at the top end of the scale.

What constitutes outstanding?

Most schools now have systems for improving the weakest teaching. Many are developing coaching and peer observation to raise what is currently satisfactory to good.

These are important areas, but I am also interested in improvement at the upper end of the scale by providing a better definition of what constitutes 'outstanding'. I hope, by this, to help schools make better judgements but, more importantly, to help them translate good into outstanding.

My starting point is to adapt the Ofsted definition of a good lesson. In summary, this defines a good lesson as one in which:

  • All students make satisfactory progress; most make good progress.

  • Most know what they are doing and why.

  • Students behave well - little time is lost to behavioural issues.

  • The classroom is a friendly and safe place - relationships are good.

  • The teacher knows his/her subject and strategies for teaching it well; the teaching methods used are appropriate for the content.

  • The teaching is well-matched to the learners' needs; most are stretched by the teaching.

  • The teacher encourages and praises frequently.

  • Available resources (time, staff etc) are well used.

  • Assessment is regular and supports progress - most pupils know what they need to do to improve.

I've then tried to do the same thing for an outstanding lesson. This is very personal, so you may well disagree with some of my criteria and wish to add others, but it's a starting point.3

An outstanding lesson is one in which all, or nearly all, of the features of a good lesson are present, plus some of the following:

A. All students are challenged and make good progress, especially those at the ends of the ability range and those who lack confidence; some make exceptional progress; a lot of ground is covered in the lesson but stragglers are not left by the wayside.

B. Enthusiasm and enjoyment pervade the classroom.

C. The teaching is exciting and interesting (for example, through use of stimulating resources or other adults in the lesson); it may be inspired, although it doesn't have to be.

D. All the students are involved in the lesson and all contribute in some form.

E. Teaching methods are very well matched to the content and to the learners - some may be original or innovative; for example, content closely linked to students' experiences or to interesting practical situations.

F. The teacher checks progress throughout the lesson; assessment is regular and helpful.

G. Students evaluate their own and others' progress accurately and constructively.

H. All students know how to improve as a result of regular and constructive feedback; where appropriate this is linked to national criteria or examination requirements.

J. The teacher develops students' basic and other cross-curricular skills, for example, literacy, numeracy, independent learning and PSHE.

K. Students have easy access to, and make use of, additional resources which they use independently to support or enhance their learning.

L. Students go out of their way to help each other; they provide mutual support.

M. The classroom is a lively and interesting place; it includes good displays of students' work (representing all abilities), things which give a subject specific flavour to the room, and annotated examples of levelled work used to support learning.

Outstanding lessons don't need to be perfect, and even with a comprehensive list like this, it can be difficult to gauge where the line is between good and outstanding. When in doubt, my litmus test is whether there is a real relationship between students and the teacher that produces a tangible air of enthusiasm and enjoyment.

Tony Thornley is a former head who has spent the last few years inspecting and advising secondary schools, predominantly those in challenging circumstances, as a local authority director, an HMI and, most recently, school improvement partner.


  1. See, for example, Tony Thornley, Practical School Self-evaluation (Nov 2006), (available from ASCL for £20).

  2. Ofsted, Using the Evaluation Schedule (July 2005) HMI 2504, and Guidance on the Use of Evidence Forms (July 2005) HMI 2505

  3. It is also worth looking at the DfES criteria for ASTs and Excellent Teachers

See: www.teachernet.gov.uk/professionaldevelopment/ast/guidance and www.teachernet.gov.uk/management/payandperformance/pay/

Example of an outstanding lesson

Tony Thornley has produced a detailed, annotated example of how the criteria above can be applied to an outstanding lesson, in this case one he observed at King James's School, Knaresborough. Click here http://www.ascl.org.uk/datafiles/hostFiles/host-239/
for a copy.

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