Barnaby Lenon’s Ten Characteristics of Successful Schools

Barnaby Lenon is a highly-respected education professional. He helped to set up the London Academy of Excellence free school, and is a Board Member of the exam regulator Ofqual and a Trustee of the New Schools Network. He was previously the Headmaster of Harrow School. Here he sets out his thoughts on what makes a successful school. We will be publishing more views from others on this in coming months. 

School effectiveness has been well researched in the UK and the answer to the question of “what works” is becoming clearer. Most headteachers know the answer from their own experience, but some find it harder than others to implement. The fact that the answer is becoming known does not mean that all successful heads are the same – far from it. Good heads range from those who are pretty authoritarian to those who believe in significant delegation of decision-making and responsibility to others. A lot depends of the nature of the school. Research suggests that schools whose pupils do well tend to have the following characteristics:

1) Good discipline

Without good discipline little else can be achieved. Fortunately, most children and parents want good discipline. Good discipline generally comes from the head. If a school has weak discipline the head has to:

  • Lay down clear rules which relate to behaviour in the classroom, in the corridors and public areas, and on the way to and from school.
  • Assume that pupils will misbehave so all staff need to know the rules and sanctions and apply them fairly and 100% of the time.
  • Temporarily exclude pupils whose behaviour is disrupting others.
  • Speak in person to parents of difficult children and enlist their support.
  • Have agreed routines for many things such as movement between classes, queueing for lunch, going into the classroom etc.
  • Have staff specifically responsible for the most difficult pupils.
  • Provide support for staff who find discipline is a problem.

2) High expectations of every child

Every child must be expected to behave well and work hard – and every child must be expected to do well in Key Stage 2 SATs and every GCSE and A-level. So there has to be regular questioning in class, marked homework and testing to ensure the teacher knows whether pupils are keeping up with high expectations. The school should invest in tracking individuals and groups. Expectations should not be limited by target grades. Schools must be ambitious. If a pupil is not keeping up with expectations then there must always be a response – with schools doing whatever they can to help pupils improve.

3) Good staff

Good schools invest a lot of time in thinking of ingenious ways of attracting and retaining good staff. Good teachers tend to have good subject knowledge, be enthusiastic about their job and their subject, plan lessons well, check learning in lessons, test pupils and mark work regularly. They set high expectations, command genuine respect and have the authority to create a scholarly atmosphere that allows pupils to be scholars.

4) Regular testing

Pupils have to learn how to commit work to memory. They must all have good notes and revision guides. They must be tested on the term’s work every three weeks or so, generally across a year group for any one subject. The results should be sent to parents. Pupils who do badly should be set the target of improving their ranked position and be given help so that they do.

5) Emotional commitment

Pupils should believe that their school is a good school and be proud to be in it. They should like their teachers while knowing that they are strong on discipline. They should want to work well to please the teacher. They must be taught that good exam results are perfectly possible and lead to a better job and better life. They must see the point of it all.

6) Cultural capital

Children from disadvantaged homes do not have the same access to cultural experiences as their more affluent peers. So they must be given the opportunity to visit museums, art galleries, classical music concerts, plays, lectures… and write about these experiences. They should also be encouraged to read good literature.

7) Parental involvement

There needs to be regular engagement with parents – regular reports on their children, visits to parents who are not sufficiently visible, newsletters, invitations to events, routine parents’ meetings.

8) Good English

Many pupils do not speak English at home, but good English determines success in most school subjects and in many jobs. So all pupils coming to secondary school without Level 4 English at the age of 11 need to have access to extra English lessons, abandoning other subjects if necessary.

9) Extra-curricular activity

Sport, debating, music, drama, Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme – things which help develop lifelong interests and friendships and which provide something good about school for those who find academic work entirely burdensome. The key is to find ways of compelling all pupils to be involved in something every term.

10) Collaboration

Many good secondary schools now benefit from being part of MATs or loose federations of local schools where they draw on each other’s strengths. Strong departments help weak ones. There is a sense of responsibility for the whole community and no school stands alone.

(And of course there is a number 11 – good heads. They are the people who make sure that numbers 1-10 happen.)

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.