School League Tables 1998: The simple key to the best schools in the nation

It is the quality and dedication of teachers that counts most, says Chris Woodhead
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Indy Lifestyle Online
What makes a good school? The answer is, or ought to be, obvious. Good teachers. Not buildings. Not the sophistication of the information technology or even the number of books in the library. Not certainly, the glossiness of the publicity material or the weight of the policy documents. To a greater or lesser extent, these things matter. It is the teachers, though, that matter most.

The better that teachers teach, the more children will learn. Good teachers care about their subject. Think back to your own school days. The teachers you can remember are, I imagine, the teachers who had a real enthusiasm for their subject. A teacher who has lost that enthusiasm is unlikely to be able to fire the imagination of his pupils.

Good teachers care, too, about their pupils as individuals. That care translates through into expectation.

The most exciting lessons I observe are lessons where the challenge is constant. There is a sense in the room that while the knowledge to be mastered is infinite and infinitely exciting, time is all too finite. There is a confidence, too, a sense of optimism: a belief in the potential of the pupils to move that next step further forward.

And, underpinning all this, is, of course, a mastery of the job. Good teachers make discipline look easy. They are clear. They are funny. They have an impeccable sense of timing. They are generous in their praise and tactful, but honest in their criticism. They are probably not that familiar with the latest academic research into the effective school or student centred learning. They would rather spend their time in extra- curricular activities, in reading in their own discipline or, even, God forbid, relaxing.

We need more such teachers. Equally we must have more good headteachers. A poor headteacher can frustrate and demoralise even the most committed and able teacher. Schools need leadership. They need headteachers who recognise that teachers come into the profession to teach, not to attend meetings or draft documents on anything and everything that moves. Good heads, good schools, understand that administration and the paperwork are there to serve the teacher.

So often, in schools as in every other organisation, somehow the reverse is true. Those who actually do the work tend to play second fiddle to those who are paid to keep the machine running smoothly.

Good headteachers eliminate each and every distraction. They (like their teachers) have the highest possible expectations - of themselves, of their teachers and of their children.

They do not hide themselves away in the office. They are visible around the school. They know their children and they have their finger on what is happening in their classrooms. Teachers who are teaching well receive the recognition they so richly deserve. Those who are not will be told that they are not. They will be given the support to improve. Their progress will be monitored and, if sufficient progress is not made, then the tough decision will not be shirked.

We have many good teachers in our schools, but we need more. It is becoming increasingly difficult to attract our brightest graduates into the profession. Some schools have to advertise several times before they can recruit the right headteacher. What, if good schools depend upon good people and we need, as we do, more good schools, can be done?

The answer does not lie in "talking up the profession". We do not need a "be nice to teachers" campaign. Such initiatives are as patronising as they are superficial. We know and the teachers know that some schools and teachers are not achieving the results that they should. To pretend otherwise is to do no-one any favours.

The children in those schools will continue to receive a sub-standard education. Their parents will continue to criticise state education and, as a consequence, the overall image and status of teachers will remain low.

No, the challenge is to break into this vicious circle. We must do everything possible to secure praise and recognition for our best teachers, but we must bring problems out into the open so that solutions can be found.

The more schools achieve, the greater the public esteem for teachers. The greater that esteem, the more attractive teaching will become as a career and it will attract leading graduates.

I am certain this is the key. Pay, of course, matters and I very much look forward to reading the Government's proposals in its Green Paper on ways to pay our best teachers and headteachers more.

I very much hope, too, that its working party on cutting bureaucracy has managed to cut through the many distractions that prevent, at present teachers from doing what they do best.

The real challenge, however, is to change the culture within education - to build on the outstanding success of our best teachers, to bridge the gap between the best and the mediocre and, in so doing, to transform public perception of state education.

In the meantime, what can a parent do to find out what a school is like? The first step, of course, is to read the inspection report (available from the school or on the Internet) and to study the test or examination results.

Then you must visit. Talk to the headteacher. Try to find out what they believe in, what they are proud of in the school, where they think there are weaknesses. Walk round the school with them. Do they talk to members of staff and children or do they sweep past with regal indifference?

How do the children behave round the school? Do they open the doors or do you have to flatten yourself against the walls?

Much, too, can be learnt from the state of the building. Litter and graffiti do not bode well.

An hour visit, if you use your eyes and ears, ought to tell you most of what you need to know.

Chris Woodhead is Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools