The following article comes from Catherine O’Farrell, one of the founders of Incluzun in the UAE.

With many schools in the UK losing their Outstanding rating and only a handful of the UAE’s 1,000 plus schools achieving the coveted label why is it so hard to get outstanding and what can schools do to work toward this coveted accolade?

The key message is simple

It’s all about the students and what happens in the classroom!

It’s not surprising really, when you think about it.

The whole function of a school is like a simple systems unit:

Input: Students who are not yet educated

Process: Educating

Output: Students who are more educated

Easy! So why does it always seem so complicated?

Let’s break down 5 of the key elements found in outstanding schools from the perspectives of  research, inspectors and stakeholders; teachers, parents and students.

1. Great Leadership

One of the key elements that is consistently reported across all stakeholders is Great Leadership. With a full performance standard on leadership alone in the UAE Inspection Framework, this is a key factor in driving excellence in education in the school.

A key indicator of good leadership is the school’s Vision and Mission.

This should not simply be a performance rolled out at assemblies and events, it should be something that is embedded in the very fabric of school life, one that students feel ownership over, one that embeds the principals of this unique campus and its populus and one that is relevant to the school and its inhabitants.

All stakeholders note the value of partnerships with the school, is the school contributing meaningfully to the broader community and do teachers engage actively in all aspect of school life and are leaders held accountable for upholding the school’s mission and where the school is constantly driven to improve year on year.

2. Inclusion

Another element of an outstanding school that is common across all stakeholders is that of inclusion.

Is the school welcoming to all students of every colour, creed and ability.

This element is particularly reported by students as of vital importance.

3. Teachers

Next are the teachers! Of course, this is arguably the most important factor for any school to move toward excellence in education. Does the school have happy teachers because happy teachers make for happy students? Teaching is a vocation, it is one that has to be part of your core self, your embodied being. Not everyone can be a teacher, it is a highly demanding job with huge emotional input. When you see a teacher who truly loves their craft it is like watching a pro athlete. They are like a magician who tailor lessons with craft and style and engage students almost mystically.

4. Student Behaviour and Engagement

Next is student behaviour and engagement. In studies across 40 countries, the CfBT Education Trust has identified this as paramount to moving a school toward excellence. They note enthusiasm and enjoyment in the classroom as key which is no surprise based on the previous point.

5. Wellbeing

Finally, an element that is gaining more and more attention over the past two years is wellbeing.

Wellbeing for teachers, the community and most importantly the students. Does the school take a preemptive and proactive role in supporting wellbeing.

Each of these elements are complex tasks to achieve but when they are done well they make for a wonderful place to be.

Each of these key elements relies on the other four to be implemented successfully. None can exist in isolation, none can stand alone. An outstanding school should have a focus on all aspects in a wholistic manner to build a comprehensive educational environment where there is always room for growth, room for risk, room for development. If all of these can be accomplished then a school is well on the way to achieving the ultimate crown of outstanding status.


Catherine O’Farrell

Catherine O’Farrell is one of the founders of, an organisation supporting people of determination in a holistic way across the MENA region. Catherine has been working in education and inclusion for almost 20 years, she has degrees in Education, Psychology and a masters in Engineering.  She is passionate about developing opportunities for children with individual needs. She is an international school inspector, has been a Group Head for some of the region’s largest educational providers and has worked with international and national committees from the Global Sustainability Network to the Ministry of Education here in the UAE to push for a more sustainable and inclusive world. Catherine is a regular media contributor and conference speaker.

Follow Catherine on Twitter – @KatesC.

Connect with Catherine in LinkedIn.