School Improvement and Governance Network

Great Schools

The short version - click here to view it now

See the short version of the Great Schools Checklist. Schools report that the checklist is a very useful tool to assess what a school is doing well now and how it is developing. It is also very useful for promoting discussions about the many school and community factors that make up a great school.

The checklist is the result of the hundreds of principals, teachers, parents, students and personnel in Victoria's DEECD who kindly shared their knowledge and experience with us.

We thank Michael Victory at the Teacher Learning Network for suggesting the idea of a short version of the Great Schools Checklist and for editing it.

The longer version

This ten-part checklist is useful as a systematic, objective way of assessing a school (to evaluate what it is doing well now and the extent to which it is proactively seeking to shape the future of education).

A great school has several key features. These areas are always, of course, a 'work in progress' for schools tackling the challenges of continuous improvement and developing 21st century learning.

Many of these things are not done consistently or are longer-term goals due to a lack of time and resources (and the huge workloads faced by principals and teachers) that make it difficult for schools to do everything that they would like to do.

Indeed, school improvement initiatives should be fully funded and appropriately supported, not simply reliant on the goodwill of teachers and staff to bring about their successful implementation.

Who created this checklist?

Our checklist is the product of hundreds of individuals who shared their knowledge and experience with us. It is:

  • Informed by the ideas and experiences of many parents and students of diverse backgrounds - from across the government, independent and Catholic education sectors
  • Based on the views of many principals and teachers who provided us with criteria for what comprises a great school and also helped us to understand the challenges and constraints.

The value for you of this checklist

Leadership teams, staff committees, school councils and boards, parents and friends groups and SRCs can all use the checklist to identify areas for improvement and monitor progress over time.

Assessing a school takes time. We need to see beyond surface appearances to realities, beyond immediate impressions to future possibilities, beyond assumptions to truths.

As well, the marketing campaigns of some schools together with media-created league tables may present parents with a narrow focus on some aspects of great schools and obscure other features of great schools and the challenges facing all schools!

A checklist can support parents in thinking holistically about their child's education. It can also assist all school community members to consider the many school and community factors that serve to make up a great school. It can also help to look beyond a one-point-in-time snapshot of a school to a school in the making.

Ten key issues

Bringing together a wide range of views about great schools (and notwithstanding the fundamental issue of adequate resources and support for schools to work on the many things that they would like to do), the ten issues are as follows.

1. Leadership and vision

Is there a strong sense of really focusing on the future? A clear vision and direction which the school needs to move toward?

Do the school's leaders convey a strong sense of new beginnings in education? Do they openly and objectively discuss not only the school's achievements but also the challenges in developing a truly 21st century education for all students?

Is there broad agreement that leadership is dispersed within schools, not only confined to formal leadership positions? How are teachers involved in system leadership? (A system leader builds learning partnerships within and between schools).

Are parents encouraged and supported to play leadership roles in the school? For example, in helping to develop school policies or contributing to school council sub-committees?

As a very good test of a school's leadership level, are just some students (i.e., an old, unrepresentative, prefect model of leadership) or are many students of all backgrounds routinely involved in some form of substantive leadership? For example:

  • Within the classroom as learning technology or team leaders
  • As tweeting 'chairpersons' - these students are responsible for posting key concepts discussed in the day’s class on Twitter
  • As peer tutors, mentors, supporters and mediators
  • As sustainability, biodiversity or community garden leaders
  • As school and community workers and problem-solvers (e.g., student action teams involve groups of students who identify and work on issues of school and community interest, undertake real research and develop practical solutions)
  • As members of the SRC/JSC and school policy-making teams
  • As editors and contributors to student publications and wikis
  • As sports, fitness or performing arts coaches and leaders.

Are these diverse student leadership roles formally recognised?

2. School governance

School governance refers to school councils and boards, student bodies (SRCs and JSCs), parents and friends forums, staff committees and other local decision-making bodies.

How are the principal and leadership team, teachers, parents and students involved in shared decision-making?

Do parents and students indicate that they are treated as valued partners on the school council and its sub-committees?

Does the school's governing body (school council or board) have a high profile? How does it add value to the school and students?

Does the school's newsletter and website promote the work of the council and provide access to council members as well as to policies, financial reports and minutes?

Does the school council reflect the school's demographics?

Does the school have a written policy and strategy for building real family participation in the life of the school? How is the impact of this strategy monitored?

Does the school provide training for families to participate in the school council?

Is there a high level of transparency and accountability to the school community (that goes beyond an annual report)?

Does the school have a clear and coherent plan for the future that includes shared school-family-community goals?

Does the plan reflect staff and community thinking and input as well as the education department's priorities?

Does the school publicly display its shared vision and goals in understandable, explicit terms to its community in a variety of ways (e.g., on its website and posters on classroom walls)?

3. Management and values

Have teachers, parents and students been involved in school planning? Did they jointly develop the vision, values and goals?

Is the school well-managed? Are school events well-organised?

Do key school leaders have good people management skills?

Is there genuine warmth between students and teachers? Is the school a safe, respectful place?

Does the school greet visitors in a friendly and helpful way? Is the reception area comfortable?

Are office staff able to handle inquiries efficiently?

Is there a good-sized, up-to-date noticeboard in a prominent position with relevant information (including school councillors and their photos, staff and their photos, latest news, etc.)?

Are there hard copies of the latest newsletter readily available?

Is there a well-publicised policy about values, behaviour and relationships? Does it apply to all school community members? How is the success of the policy monitored - and by whom?

How are the school’s stated values (e.g., respect and teamwork) promoted through management practice?

What is the school's approach to student behaviour and a safe working environment?

Are conflicts and complaints managed well? Is a proper process for handling any concerns or complaints made clear in a leaflet?

4. Teaching and learning

Do school documents and the school's leaders convey a strong sense of continuous improvement and innovation in teaching and learning? Is this communicated well to parents and students?

Do school leaders draw attention to their use of educational research?

Are there positive, strongly collaborative relationships between teachers and students?

Are teachers given the time and resources to plan and work together to develop the most effective teaching and learning?

What professional development opportunities do teachers have? Do teachers routinely collaborate?

Do articles in the school's newsletter and on its website discuss what students are doing in class and include tips on helping with learning at home?

Do newsletter and website articles use school data to discuss key issues and describe how the school is working to make improvements?

Do families and teachers have opportunities to learn together as to how to best collaborate to improve student achievement?

How is the school working toward culturally and socially inclusive teaching and learning? Does the school have a cultural and social inclusion policy and plan?

How does the school assist all students to have a strong mix of both deep academic knowledge and applied/practical learning in classroom and community settings?

Does the school have a shared policy framework and strategy for powerful or high quality learning developed from the outset by staff and school community stakeholders?

Does the school really cater for a student’s individual interests, differences and needs?

What are the steps toward really ‘personalised learning’ that is built around all learners’ needs, aspirations, talents, interests and right to all-round personal development?

Are students able to make use of personalised learning plans to target their own life and learning goals?

Is the school promoting learning and life pathways that challenge social class and other constraints on students' educational options, learning outcomes and life chances?

Do students receive regular feedback that is timely and focused? Are there many instances of feedback on practice work? Or is most of the feedback an explanation of where students 'lost marks' in an assessment?

How are all students supported to acquire a strong capacity to speak clearly, publicly, competently and confidently, and at length, about key themes and topics?

Do students routinely talk to the class as a whole, read aloud, come out to the whiteboard, write on it and explain in detail and in depth what they are doing?

How is talk supported at home as well as in the classroom?

5. Curriculum

How is the school addressing a fundamental challenge: the right of all students to curriculum breadth, depth and balance, and to high standards in all learning areas, not just some of them?

Or - given the pressures on schools and limited resources - is there a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy that can create a divided curriculum between the so-called ‘basics’ and key learning areas such as science, the arts, history and languages?

Does the school have a vision of quality languages education for all students? What is the practical progress towards this? What is the percentage of students who are bilingual?

Is there an in-depth coverage of fewer topics, ideas and concepts in the curriculum (to support students' development of deeper understanding)?

Does the curriculum provide many opportunities for students to link:

  • Theories and concepts and ‘real world’ problem-solving?
  • Deep academic knowledge and practical and applied learning?
  • Strong guided instruction and inquiry-based learning?

To what extent is the curriculum planned by the school to respond to local needs, interests and priorities?

Is the school part of a cluster of primary and secondary schools? Do teachers have the opportunity to plan and integrate key learning areas from a P-10 or P-12 perspective?

Does the curriculum provide sufficient time for student talk? Is there a balance of written and oral tasks and activities?

Does the curriculum value all aspects of education - academic, vocational, physical and social?

For a secondary school, what is the curriculum range? If it is broad, it may have 40 or so Year 12 studies as well as opportunities for students to combine academic with applied and vocational learning.

What co-curricular activities are available? These may include:

  • Excursions, trips and camps
  • Voluntary community work and work experience
  • Student action teams
  • Sister schools overseas/interstate.

Does the school provide clear guidelines about the curriculum and the expectations for students at each year level?

6. Technology and communication

What is the level of school and classroom use of information and communication technology (ICT)? How is the technology used to support teaching and learning?

Given that students can be inundated by online information, how are they supported to separate deeper learning and knowledge from superficial fact-gathering?

Does the school have a technology policy and plan (created, ideally, by a team involving teachers, parents and students)?

Based on the work of schools, such a policy and plan (embracing the ideas of the whole school community) may include:

  • Our shared vision, goal and objectives for ICT
  • Learning, curriculum and ICT links
  • Family and community partnerships
  • Home-school communication
  • On-line protocols and turn-around times
  • Professional learning for all stakeholders
  • Students' roles as technology leaders at school and at home.

How well are technologies (e.g., students co-creating wikis) used to build the home-school educational partnership?

What are the specific kinds of content-rich, two-way communication between the school and families?

What is the school's policy for teacher and family communication?

Is there a practical plan to improve school communication over time?

Does the school have an answering machine on which to leave messages after hours?

Does the school's website enable students, parents and staff to access lesson plans, reports on student progress and homework?

Are e-mail and other tools and technologies used to facilitate fast, effective communication between teachers and families to:

  • Let parents know immediately when students are absent or need to hand in work?
  • Offer practical tips on learning?
  • Provide other information?

Are teachers and other staff provided with adequate time for supporting this?

7. Partnerships and community

Partnerships consist of individuals - and groups and organisations - with different yet complementary knowledge or skills (e.g., how the knowledge and insights of teachers and parents complement each other). They create something together that could not be developed by any one person, group or organisation.

To what extent does the school link and align the many settings in which students learn, develop and find support? These include:

  • The home
  • Workplaces
  • Community organisations
  • Health and community services
  • Sports, arts and recreation.

To what extent are students themselves able to able to draw upon, and make links between, these multiple areas of their life and learning? 

Is the school a melting pot of different races, cultures, religions and social class backgrounds? How is this celebrated and promoted? How are positive, respectful relations among students supported?

Will each student have a personal life story of mixing broadly with students from diverse social, cultural and religious backgrounds?

Or is the school not representative of the broader community? If this is the case, how does the school support students to have a mix of cultural and social experiences?

To what extent does the school bring together teachers', parents' and students' knowledge and insights?

Are parents informed at the beginning of each year about what will be covered in subjects and the expectations about student attendance, homework and participation?  

Does the school use homework diaries that are seen and signed by parents and teachers?

What is the policy for telephone contact with individual teachers so that contact can be handled efficiently and effectively? To ensure that teachers are not overloaded, how is this handled?

Does the school promote information in its newsletter or on its website about what volunteer help is needed?

When was the last time the school held a forum in which teachers, parents and students were involved in developing school values or a strategic plan or exploring key questions such as:

  • What are the challenges schools are facing?
  • What can be done to further build the school-family-community partnership?
  • What does learning of the future and what does schooling of the future look and sound like?
  • What is a great school?

8. Joined-up change

To what extent is the school developing its own broad, 'joined-up' approach to educational change? Evidence may include:

  • A clear and compelling message as to why change is needed
  • A clear, shared vision of what is to be changed and achieved
  • Ownership of change among teachers, parents and students
  • A shared policy framework that joins up all of the changes.

Is the school developing a joined-up approach between:

  • The vertical 'parts' of education (e.g., two or more primary and secondary schools working together to develop P-12 schooling or a learning community involving a TAFE college or university)?
  • The horizontal links with the wider community (e.g., health agencies, workplaces, businesses, community organisations, and groups such as sporting clubs)?

What are the school's current and future plans in:

  • Working closely with families and building home-school links?
  • Working closely with health services and local workplaces?
  • Sharing good practice in clusters and regional networks?
  • Developing primary-secondary links via middle years work?
  • Building links with kindergartens and universities and colleges?
  • Sharing resources such as sport and performing arts facilities?

Does the school have strong teams and partnerships? Is it, for example, part of a learning community or cluster of primary and secondary schools (to share ideas and resources and develop a P-12 model of schooling)?

Is there strong mutual professional learning and support through a cluster or network?

Does the school have access to high-quality before- and after-school and holiday programs?

Is the school an integral part of the local community? Do students take part in a variety of activities including after school community-based sports and other local community activities? Are these local community links listed on the school website?

Is it involved in local community renewal (e.g., in replanting local areas and promoting biodiversity)? Do students routinely have opportunities to learn through action orientated, hands-on experience to conserve local biodiversity?

Are students able to walk and bike to and from school? Or do students need to be driven to a school away from their local community (possibly harming the environment due to increased car use and student health due to decreased physical activity)?

9. Performance

How is the school’s performance monitored and evaluated? How is this communicated to the school community?

Are families able to readily access up-to-date records of student performance? Is clear and informative feedback routinely provided to students? Are teachers and other staff provided with adequate time and support to enable this to happen?

Is the school adding educational value to student achievement beyond that which may be predicted given the social class backgrounds and prior attainments of students?

What is the evidence for this (e.g., credible indicators of how the school specifically adds value to student achievement)? Or is the school largely dependent on seeking to attract the most ‘desirable’ students as the main strategy to boost its results?

School performance data systems include student outcome data, opinion data and demographic data that take into account the impact of student background. Such assessments can obviously help to reveal the real added value.

Is the school supporting both the personal (e.g., individual teacher professional development) and systemic (e.g., being part of a P-12 cluster) sources of performance improvement? System factors are likely to increase in importance.

10. Resources and facilities

These issues are obviously not just matters for any one school but may reflect, of course, broader inequities in school funding.

Are there adequate resources and support for the efforts of staff (in partnership with families and the community) to improve the opportunities and outcomes of students?

Are key school improvement initiatives fully funded and appropriately supported and not simply reliant on the goodwill of teachers and staff to bring about their successful implementation?

Are the buildings modern and well-maintained? Are the grounds neat and safe? Are the toilets modern and well cared for?

Does the school have clear, friendly directional signs?

Is there a good mix of large and small spaces for learning? Are there facilities for music, sport, technology, art and science?

How have technological advances impacted on the spaces that the school has developed?

Does the school feel warm and inviting? Are there displays of student work and obvious signs of student participation?

What facilities are being shared to extend the ‘opening hours’ of the school?

Conclusion

These ten areas all obviously interrelate and depend upon one another. This is what creates a great school over time.

This also means that a great school has a shared framework so as to plan for real educational change and improvement.

As well, it means that a school has adequate resources and support to plan for, and deliver, the things that it wants to do.