Russel Ellicott, Headmaster at Pate’s Grammar School in Cheltenham, delves into how any school can become outstanding, why the ‘feel’ of a school is critical, and the opportunities presented by the pandemic.


I have enjoyed thousands of hours of leadership courses, overseen hundreds of school based projects, become relatively expert in change management processes and heard academics and CEOs explain the merits of different leadership models. I have enjoyed this process immensely but I’m constantly thinking ‘what have I really learned?’

I have more tools and policies that I can use, but ultimately I have realised that school leadership is all about people. You will know already that our very best schools celebrate people in a way that is joyful, sustained and sincere. Our top schools appreciate and develop students and staff. They realise that people are interesting and construct ways to find out about them and their motivations.

 ‘Our top schools… celebrate people in a way that is joyful, sustained and sincere. … they realise that people are interesting and construct ways to find out about them and their motivations.’

As we negotiate a post-pandemic world this seems like a great time to reassess what we want from education. High Performance Learning has helped Pate’s to concentrate on what I believe matters the most – the attitudes, mindset and behaviours of our students and staff. We also really prioritise an environment that is aspirational, supportive and exciting.

How does your school feel?

If you are reading this then you are probably interested in how your school could develop further. You will also be aware that creating the right culture in a school is fundamental, and everything we do at Pate’s is focussed on how we can enhance and build on our ethos and values, what we call ‘The Pate’s Way’. However I sometimes visit schools where there is an obvious disconnect between the vision and values promoted on their website and the impression you get when you are in the building.

I would urge you to walk around your school at lunchtime and again during a lesson. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? Not quite sure? Then get someone else in to test it too – I love going to schools and I’d be delighted to visit!

Regardless of what is in your prospectus, or what you say at Open Evening, your observations on this walk will reflect your school culture. Is it what you expect? If not, what is missing? How would you describe the school to someone else? The top schools have a secure culture that pervades everything they do. Often they are relentlessly optimistic and marry high standards with elements of obvious enjoyment. I have yet to visit an outstanding school, by any measure, which does not have a sure sense of culture.

 ‘I have yet to visit an outstanding school, by any measure, which does not have a sure sense of culture.’

Learning is our core business

In the best schools learning is very obviously their core business. You see this in lessons, but even more so in the attitude to staff. They recruit the very best teachers, and never compromise on this. They find ways to support, challenge and grow their staff so that they improve the school each year. Top schools will live being a learning community and model the practice of seeking out new ideas, learning from research and collaborating with experts elsewhere.

HPL is helping us to meet the challenge of creating and empowering autonomous, skilled learners who are also academically successful. As part of the HPL community of global schools we talk and work with teachers and leaders who are similarly centred on learning. I have seen that this collaboration has led to collective advances in our thinking. HPL is helping us to remain relentlessly optimistic for our learners and what they can achieve.

Leadership and the drive to ‘Beyond Outstanding’

A common theme in all top schools is a shared desire to be ‘beyond outstanding’, or something similar, in everything that they do. These schools realise that only consistently high aspirations will ensure that the community is spurred on to do their best, to find out more and to explore new ideas. The leaders lead, they don’t defer to others. They discuss intentions and solutions, they are ambitious, they make mistakes, but they are driven, as a collective, to make the school a better place.

They pick up on the small things around their school – they notice more. They are visible, they walk the corridors and have the ability to make judgements based on behaviours and attitudes as well as data. They will ask questions like: ‘How does the school feel at the moment?’, ‘What is the mood in assembly?’, ‘Is there a tone in some communications that needs investigating?’ They don’t ignore these but instead focus on conversations and actions that add to understanding. The best schools say thank you for the small things and celebrate successes in the community.

In my experience great schools foster a culture and ‘feel’ that promotes curiosity, encourages collective improvement and values a sense of fun. 

Russel Ellicott has been Headteacher at Pate’s Grammar School in Cheltenham since 2012. Pate’s is consistently the highest achieving co-educational school in the country, the most academically successful school outside of London and was named as Sunday Times School of the Year in 2013 and 2020. 

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