9 pillars of an outstanding department

Pause and consider if you are doing things the best way to reach your goal

I am currently enjoying the book Self Improving Schools produced by the NET. One chapter in particular is sparking ideas; that by Rachel Macfarlane on Creating Great Schools. In it she discusses the work of the Going for Great project in London and the 9 Pillars of Greatness that this led to. These 9 pillars are principles that their research concluded great schools seemed to have at their core. I wonder if the same principles could be used to help build an outstanding department?

Pillar 1: A shared vision, values, culture and ethos, based on the highest expectations of all members of the school community. As a head of department I don’t spend much time thinking about a vision. I seem to spend more time reacting to demands for data, creating resources or sorting out sudden crisis but I can see the value in pausing and making sure there is an over arching vision of what you are trying to achieve. That way I can make sure that I am spending my time on the things that matter. At the moment the vision I have for the department is that our pupils become excellent geographers. 

Pillar 2: Inspirational leadership at all levels throughout the school. I think this is increasingly important in the Middle Leader role. There is a lot of cynicism in education and many teachers have become used to initiative after initiative coming down from SLT and then vanishing into the ether when they become bored with it or forget about it. Heads of Department need to have the trust of their teams and this trust comes from good communication and strong leadership.

Pillar 3: Exceptional teaching, learning, assessment and feedback to support the highest levels of attainment and achievement. Hard to argue with this really. In terms of planning around this pillar I think acts as a useful reminder to keep this at the heart if all we do. We need to share outstanding practice in teaching and learning in deoartment meetings. We also need to make sure that feedback is closely linked to a specific purpose and we need a strong feedback policy that reflects best practice. Data needs to be used and acted upon rather than simply tracked.

Pillar 4: A relentless focus on engaging and involving students. At a school wide level student councils are well established but I wonder if we can do more at a department level. We could have a small group working on increasing pupil engagement, looking at pupil voice etc. We could also make better use of our excellent geographers to model excellence by producing a gallery of their work as exemplars.

Pillar 5: Personalised and highly effective continuous professional development within a learning community. We need to embrace a wide range of CPD opportunities as a department. We have a wealth of experience in the school we can draw in but also schools in the county. We can use teach meets, blogs and educational publications to make sure that we are sitting still. We also need to take advantage of local universities to make sure that our subject knowledge is current and always up to date.

Pillar 6: A stimulating and inclusive environment and climate for learning. As a department we need to use our display space effectively. We need to not just display good work but to explain why it is great work. We need galleries of excellent work that is annotated and referred to in lessons. We need to make sure that we are rigourously following the schools behaviour policy and showing our high expectations at all times. We need our spaces to be oasies of calm productivity.

Pillar 7: A rich and creative curriculum, within and beyond the classroom, fully meeting the needs of individuals and groups of students. The pressure in secondary school to start preparing pupils for GCSEs from the start of year 7 is huge but we need to make sure that as well as ensuring academic success we don’t forget to inspire and excite. We need to embrace the opportunities for field trips and to bring in outside speakers to expand horizons.

Pillar 8: High quality partnerships with parents and the community, other schools and networks, locally, nationally and internationally. There are lots of opportunities to work with other schools in our local area through the East Sussex Geography Hub as well as a group focusing on KS5. We can also forge links to the community and local groups by inviting them in to share their experiences with us. We can link to national geography bodies and international societies. All of this should ensure that our students get the best possible opportunities.

Pillar 9: Robust and rigorous self-evaluation, data analysis and collective review. We have carried out a lot more “Quality Assurance” activities over the last couple of years and this has certainly led to a better underdstanding of the department’s strengths and weaknesses. We need to be much more honest about any areas that need to be improved and to have those difficult conversations. It can be difficult in a good school and a good department to avoid complacency and to insist on change when things seem to be “OK”. We need to be clear that OK isn’t good enough for our students.

Some of these points seem self evident but I am hoping that they will help us to stay focused in the year ahead on doing the things that matter and will see results. If nothing else I hope it will make us less reactive and more proactive.


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