11 Characteristics Of Effective Schools

Researchers, and more recently teachers themselves, have been debating what are the key characteristics of effective schools.

Despite decades of mulling over what works and what doesn’t, we keep on coming back to the same old, same old.

When I look back over studies from the last 30-40 years then we are still talking in the same territory today as to what makes a difference although having said that, ‘data’ wasn’t such an obsession then as it is now and many would put that smack bang in the centre of things today.

So, when it comes to all things primary then Mortimore et al (1988), Alexander et al (1992), Sammons (1994) and Reynolds et al (1996) all identified the following factors as critical to the success of schools:

• purposeful leadership by the headteacher;
• the involvement of the deputy headteacher;
• involvement of teachers;
• consistency amongst teachers;
• structured teaching sessions;
• intellectually challenging teaching;
• a work-centred environment;
• limited focus in teaching sessions and the reduction to three or four at most in the number of activities/curriculum areas taking place simultaneously in classrooms;
• maximum communication between teachers and students;
• increased whole class interactive teaching;
• parental involvement;
• record keeping;
• a positive climate in the school.

It’s funny how the above list are things we see as ‘givens’ in any school environment. There’s more…

Brighouse and Tomlinson (1991) suggested seven key characteristics of effective schools:

1.  Leadership at all levels: strong, purposeful, adoption of more than one style.
2.  Management and organisation: clear, simple, flatter structures.
3.  Collective self-review: involving all staff and leading to developing new practices.
4.  Staff development: systematic and involving collective and individual needs.
5.  Environment/building/uplifting ethos: visually and aurally positive, promoting positive behaviour, high expectations.
6.  Teaching and learning: creative debate amongst teachers and curricula and pedagogy.
7.  Parental involvement: parents as partners in education.

Then Sammons et al (1995) and Reynolds et a. (1996) identified eleven factors of effective schools:

  1. shared leadership (firm purposeful, participative – the leading professional);
  2. shared vision and goals (unity of purpose, consistency of practice, collegiality and collaboration);
  3. a learning environment (an orderly atmosphere and attractive environment);
  4. concentration on teaching and learning (maximisation of learning time, academic emphasis, focus on achievement);
  5. high expectations (all round, clear communication of expectations, providing intellectual challenge);
  6. positive reinforcement (clear and fair discipline, feedback);
  7. monitoring progress (monitoring pupil performance, evaluating school performance);
  8. pupil rights and responsibilities (high pupil self-esteem, positions of responsibility, control of work);
  9. purposeful teaching (efficient organisation, clarity of purpose, structured lessons, adaptive practice);
  10. a learning organisation (school-based staff development);
  11. home-school partnership (parental involvement).

Reynolds (1995) summarises research as indicating seven major factors in creating effectiveness:

1. The nature of the leadership by the headteacher (setting the mission, involving staff).

2. Academic push or academic press: high expectations of what students can achieve, creating large amounts of learning time (including homework) and entering large numbers for public examinations.

3. Parental involvement (parents as partners in and supporters of education).

4. Pupil involvement (in learning and other aspects of the school).

5. Organisational control of pupils (reinforced by cohesion and consistency in the school together with collective ownership of practices and effective communication).

6. Organisational consistency across lessons in the same subjects, different subjects in the same years and across years.

7. Organisational constancy (limited staff turnover).

Given the above ‘key’ factors, would you be able to place these in any sort of order as being the most important or do they all interact together and stand side by side?

I think some of the features above can be ranked as without strong leadership many of the other aspects don’t just magically happen by themselves. But if we take this as occupying number one spot, what next and where are schools expected to channel their energies?

It is a pretty impressive school that can work on all of these areas and keep all the plates spinning throughout the year to remain effective. As soon as one of the plates smashes then someone has to pick up the pieces.


Alexander, R., Rose, J. and Woodhead, C. (1992) Curriculum Organisation and Classroom Practice in Primary Schools. London: Department for Education.

Brighouse, T. and Tomlinson, J. (1991) Successful Schools. London: Institute of Public Policy Research.

Mortimore, P., Sammons, P., Stoll, L., Lewis, D. and Ecob, R. (1988) School Matters: The Junior Years. Shepton Mallett: Open Books.

Reynolds, D. (1995) The effective school: an inaugural lecture. Evaluation and Research in Education, 9 (2), 57–73.

Reynolds, D., Sammons, P., Stoll, L., Barber, M. and Hillman, J. (1996) School effectiveness and school improvement in the United Kingdom. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 7 (2), 133–58.

Sammons, P. (1994) Findings from school effectiveness research: some implications for improving the quality of schools. In P. Ribbins and E. Burridge (eds), (1994) Promoting improvement in schools: aspects of quality in Birmingham. In P. Ribbins and E. Burridge (eds) (1994) Improving Education: Promoting Quality in Schools. London: Cassell.

Sammons, P., Hillman, J. and Mortimore, P. (1995) Key Characteristics of Effective Schools: a Review of School Effectiveness Research. Report by the Institute of Education, University of London, for the Office for Standards in Education.


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