Do you dream of being an Ofsted Outstanding teacher?

Outstanding isn’t a good place to be. Everyone stops and stares at you, people point at you and expectations are stratospheric. It’s the equivalent of being a flash sports car: some people admire you but there are plenty that want to scratch you as well. In fact, being outstanding is pretty outlandish.

I don’t know any outstanding teachers. I know some really good ones though. I’ve seen a few outstanding lessons here and there on my travels and I’d like to think that I’ve delivered a couple myself too.

But being outstanding is just plain exhausting and completely unsustainable. Who on earth can be outstanding all of the time? I tried it once and I was dead on my feet by Tuesday lunchtime and clapped out by home time. Being outstanding takes an enormous amount of energy that you just don’t have. Have you tried doing the Riverdance lesson after lesson?

‘Outstanding’ teaching can drive you nuts

The pressure that comes with Outstanding is enormous. Thank goodness therefore that Ofsted doesn’t grade lessons anymore. No matter how brilliant a lesson might have been, Ofsted inspectors always thought twice, then twice again before awarding an ‘outstanding’ because they knew that it was a poisoned chalice. Outstanding can soon have you feeling out of sorts.

Can you imagine what it would mean to be ‘Ofsted Outstanding’?

It would mean you would stand out like a sore thumb. Your colleagues, children and parents would simply expect too much. It’s good to set the bar high. It’s great to strive and have ambition but I don’t think we should aim to be outstanding because it just isn’t pedagogically sustainable on an individual level day in and day out. I think we should all just settle for being good with a few flashes of excellence – that’s real-life teaching five days a week. There’s nothing wrong with being on the fringes of outstanding.

Does that mean we shouldn’t aim to be ‘Outstanding’?

No, aiming high is important and no educator would be doing their job by aiming for just average. We can demand children try hard and we can showcase WAOOLL looks like (What An Outstanding One Looks Like). We can deliver the curriculum with bags of energy, passion and enthusiasm but we have to be honest and say that consistently standing out in everything is just nonsense. Outstanding now and again is possible but a more realistic approach is to aim for personal bests and that means developing resilience and confidence.

Does ‘Ofsted Outstanding’ exist?

There are some exceptions. 1% of the population are savants and by their very nature savants are exceptional, almost superhuman and their normal state of being is outstanding. Mathematical savants are truly amazing people and they help to put a lot into perspective. Some people see everything as numbers like Jedediah Buxton who was able to calculate the area of his village just by walking around it and was able to calculate numbers up to 39 figures.

Thomas Fuller is another outstanding maths machine. He was once asked how many seconds a man had lived who was 70 years, 17 days, and 12 hours old, and he gave the correct answer of 2,210,500,800 in 90 seconds, even correcting for the 17 leap years included.

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Then there is the high-functioning autistic savant Daniel Tammet who has a rare form of synaesthesia and sees each integers up to 10,000 as having their own unique shapes, colour, texture and feel. He first became famous when he recited from memory Pi to 22,514 decimal places and can perform multiplications at breakneck speeds.

And what about George and Charles Finn? They were a pair of savant twins who were hardwired at calendar counting being able to name any date for 40,000 years into the past or future.

Mathematical savants tend to have an emotional attachment to numbers, they are on personal terms with them and will see them as friends. This is a rarity as many adults are terrified of numbers and children aren’t exactly on friendly terms with them either. I have had the privilege of teaching a maths savant, just once in my career, a 10 year old genius, and he was truly outstanding and wiped the floor with me. I realised then that I would never be an outstanding teacher.

How to be an ‘Ofsted Outstanding’ primary maths teacher

There are lots of books and INSET sessions that talk about being outstanding but they are dangerous because they offer some sort of formula or recipe and magic ingredients that just don’t exist. If you follow x, y and z then you stand a great chance of being outstanding…perhaps but what about the myriad of contextual factors that interact that can mess everything up for you.

The classroom is not a lab with test tubes but a complex learning environment where any number of incidents will mingle,  muddle and mesh to make a mess. Learning is messy so expect your lessons to be as well. Every class is different, every teacher is different and so to offer a prescription or to champion a style of teaching as the key to outstanding is misguided and delusional. Perceptive teachers know their own limits.

Inspiring, not ‘Outstanding’

Inspiring, we should be inspiring. Children want to be inspired and it is our job to engage them, challenge them, get the best out of them, help them make progress and transmit a love of maths. If children enjoy their maths then that’s a lesson to be proud of. It might not be the best lesson ever but if what you have given children is an interest, a spark, an intellectual prod, a smile then that is a successful maths lesson. Children can still make real progress without you or the whole of a lesson being outstanding.

The doyen of creative education is Sir Ken Robinson and he has a lot to say about ‘being in your element’. Teachers who are in their element are probably as close to being outstanding as most but they don’t go out of their way to be. The key contributing factor is to be passionate in what you do. If a maths teacher has passion then that makes for a powerful lesson. Lots of maths lessons are actually very good but they lack the passionate state of being of a teacher in the zone. If we can be passionate maths teachers and provide opportunities for children to play with maths then surely this is better than conking out trying to be outstanding.

Be in the Maths zone, not the ‘Ofsted Outstanding’ zone

With subject knowledge and understanding comes confidence and with confidence comes hunger, thirst and an appetite for maths. The key issue isn’t being outstanding but being in the zone and having the ability to draw children into the zone so they too can be in their element.

‘Ofsted Outstanding on its way out?

Are the days of outstanding numbered anyway? Amanda Spielman, the incoming head has suggested that controversial ‘outstanding’ ratings for schools could be scrapped. She told the Education Select Committee:

“I’m quite uncomfortable about some of the effects you see it having in the system, I have to say.”

If the incoming head of Ofsted has admitted that aspects of the grading system are ‘uncomfortable’, then ‘Outstanding’ – easily the most uncomfortable definition of the bunch – may face an overhaul in itself. With this in mind, is it safer to focus on being inspiring, on being the best version of teachers by our own definitions, rather than an ‘Ofsted Outstanding’ teacher in the eyes of a system likely facing reform?

Enjoyed this? Read more on school leadership in @OldPrimaryHead1’s ‘Confession of a Primary Headteacher – The Secret to Primary School Leadership’.

John Dabell , Teacher , Former School Inspector

A former school inspector with a background in teaching and education, John frequently writes for the Third Space blog on a variety of topics.