Moving to Outstanding: A Guide to School Inspections
This post was written by Simon O’Connor, director of Deira International School and Chief of Education for the Al Futtaim Education Foundation. Simon has over 25 years of experience in education.
Moving to a new school in September 2020 in the middle of the COVID pandemic posed particular challenges. In the UAE all schools were required to maintain strict protocols for the subsequent two years. These included enforced distancing and masks for everyone.
Despite these restrictions, Deira International School (DIS) managed a path of rapid improvement. In October 2021 the school was judged to be Outstanding in all areas in a British Schools Overseas (BSO) inspection.
When full Dubai Schools Inspection Board (DSIB) inspections returned in 2022 following the pandemic, the school was also judged to be Outstanding with an uplift in 25% of judgements. Two particular strategies helped to achieve this success.
One area which is often overlooked in schools is a focus on organizational culture. Edgar Schein stated that ‘The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture’. However, I had always believed in the past that such a perspective belonged in the corporate world, as opposed to that of education. Although not required, a change in leadership is a convenient opportunity to go back to basics and look at why things run as they do. At DIS we looked at the values of the school and how these could be promoted. We also mapped how these values would manifest in the behavior across all parts of the school community, staff, students and parents. This provided consistency but, I believe more importantly, everyone also understood why there were being asked to exhibit these behaviors. The leadership team also discussed how we would like to lead endorsing these values. This was significant piece of work, which is ongoing, but served as an accelerant to the improvements that were hoped for.
Teaching and learning
One thing all inspection frameworks inevitably have in common is a focus on teaching and learning. Over the last three years we have seen a marked increase in the quality of teaching at the school. This is a result of a number of deliberate strategies. The first was to create a common understanding of what all lessons should be aspiring to achieve. DIS is an all through school, with students aged 3-18. The differences between outstanding EYFS lessons and IBDP are huge, but the fundamentals remain the same. Between the start of the lesson and the end, all students need to make rapid and sustained progress.
The next step was to create a common language for staff to discuss their practice. This resulted in the DIS10 – what we identify to be the 10 characteristics of the best lessons, which are:
- Connect the Learning
- Model Excellence
- Lesson Transparency
- Real Life Links
- Challenge and Differentiation
- Meta-cognition Thinking
- Higher Order Questioning
- High Quality Authentic Product
- Timely Intervention
It is not expected that teachers demonstrate all of these in every lesson, but more a framework of consideration when planning. It also provides a consistency when providing feedback to staff on observations. A final measure was to look at the characteristics which we hoped to develop in our students, alongside the curriculum. DIS students take IB options in the sixth form, and therefore it made sense to focus on the IB learner profile. However, these are now used throughout the school from FS onwards. This means that by the time our students start their IB courses, they should be proficient in the expectations of the profile.
A further change was to look at how we supported staff to improve. We now have a culture of continual drop-ins to lessons. But these are non-judgmental and result in coaching conversations, focused solely on how the teacher would like to improve. We have also introduced an early finish for students one day a week, which enables two hours for focused professional development. The majority of this is left to heads of year and heads of department to work with their teams, to talk about how they want to improve and giving the space to work on those developments.
The impact of these measure has been significant. In addition to the recognition from the inspection teams, the school has seen a substantial increase in external examination results as well as outcomes internally tracked. We have also had a large increase in teacher retention and wellbeing measures strongly suggest that our staff are happy with these developments. Of course, much more remains to be done but the improvements that have taken place over the last three years place Deira International School in a strong position moving forward.
Written by: Simon O’Connor
Simon O’Connor is the Director of Deira International School with oversight over both the primary and secondary schools. Simon is also Chief of Education for the Al Futtaim Education Foundation, working across their portfolio of schools. Simon has over 25 years of experience in education and joined DIS in August of 2020.
Simon is passionate about learning and ensuring all students are challenged in lessons for them to achieve their full potential. He strongly believes that if this is to be achieved students should be happy at school, and therefore the wellbeing of community must be a key focus for all. He is also very interested in school leadership and is currently studying for Doctorate with the University of Buckingham, researching the impact of a focus on organizational culture in international schools.