The difference between Ofsted Ratings “Requires Improvement” and “Outstanding”

Teachers often insist that they will only take employment in an “outstanding” school. Typically their expectation is that the behaviour of students will be exemplary and there will be excellent staff relations with high morale. But is this perception of outstanding schools accurate? We have surveyed over 100 teachers who have worked in both outstanding schools and Ofsted rating “requires improvement” schools to find out what they consider the real differences are between the two.

Pros and Cons of an Outstanding School

We heard lots of lovely experiences about working in outstanding schools, mostly directed towards excellent leadership and the willingness for both Middle Management and Senior Leadership to listen to ideas. Outstanding schools are more likely to have stable departmental teams, a supportive ethos and opportunities to suggest initiatives that are considered by the team. Many respondents also mentioned that good practice was acknowledged and praised by the SLT, which was positive for staff morale.

Several of our respondents felt that their creativity had been stifled within outstanding schools.  The school did everything in a certain way and there was no scope for innovation. Some respondents highlighted however that the upside to this rigidness meant that teaching and learning was consistent across the school, something that many thought was not a characteristic of requires improvement schools.

Experiences of working in outstanding schools varied. The downside to the rating is the pressure that the school feels under to maintain the status. High standards are to be expected of course and some felt that the environment was corporate and almost “military”. This regimented approach did suit some of our respondents though,  as they felt that behaviour was easier to manage.

Some of our respondents warned that senior leadership within outstanding schools can focus too much on achieving high grades and producing outstanding data. Often the expectations were unrealistic and placed unnecessary pressure on both students and staff resulting in staff becoming demotivated and several leaving the school or even the profession.

Are there any advantages of working in a “requires improvement” school?

Experiences of working in RI schools also varied and it appears there is no Ofsted “requires improvement” definition. Those who had worked in more than one RI school distinguished them based on the length of time the school had been on that rating and what the SLT were doing to move the school forward.

Many reported that the SLT were very motivated and discernibly looking to get the best out of the staff team. This opened up opportunities for training and development and ample opportunities to hone skills within a supportive environment in which creativity was often applauded.

Others found that the school had no control over behaviour, instances were not backed up by management and classes had a high proportion of disruptive students that increased throughout the year. This issue of schools being stuck in a cycle of low performance was reported earlier this year, where students with serious behaviour issues are being moved into these schools in the middle of the year because there are spaces available.

Teachers considering taking up a post within a RI school should be weary of the circumstances behind the rating and what the school’s vision is for improvement. If satisfied with this then there are several advantages of working in a “requires improvement” school. Our respondents noted good career development with opportunities coming up all the time, strong staff cohesion with everyone looking out for each other, motivated SLT with a strong focus on staff wellbeing and opportunities to develop classroom management within a supportive environment.

Is student behaviour better in outstanding schools?

Almost all teachers agreed that the best indicator for whether a school will have challenging behaviour is not the Ofsted rating but the location of the school. Students attending schools in disadvantaged areas are likely to present with challenging behaviour whilst in affluent areas they are more likely to be motivated towards learning. But is there a link between schools in disadvantaged areas and lower Ofsted ratings?

Back in June 2018 Schools Week reported that schools in the most affluent areas are more than twice as likely to be rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted as those in the most deprived.

Since then Ofsted research has previously found that schools in the most deprived areas have the best curricula, paving the way for the Education Inspection Framework (EIF) to assess overall quality of education instead of pushing performance data as a big influence in the basis of the judgement.

However, in March this year Ofsted’s statistics  showed that although schools in the most disadvantaged areas are now just as likely as those in the most affluent areas to be rated ‘outstanding’,  they are still far more likely to be rated ‘requires improvement’. So there is still a link between disadvantaged areas and lower Ofsted ratings but there has been a big increase of outstanding schools in these same areas.

This is consistent with our survey response, with many of our respondents reporting a lack of structured approach towards behaviour within “requires improvement” schools. Outstanding schools are more likely to have a well-established approach with high standards that are consistently implemented across the school. Whilst there are high levels of challenging behaviour in these schools, due to the consistent approach across the school it is managed very well.

A general theme from the survey was that high staff turnover is an indicator of poor behaviour. Once students get used to staff leaving they can be harder to bond with. Many added that high staff turnover is more likely to be seen in requires improvement schools, with outstanding schools often having a more stable staff team.

Should I take a job in a “requires improvement” school?

Whether or not you are going to enjoy your teaching will come down to how well you mould with the people that you work with. This is the general message that we learnt from the survey. Applicants should consider the kind of teaching environment that will help them enjoy going to school. A recent change in leadership may well be a good sign that the school will improve fast and being part of that journey will be excellent for career development.

We have heard reports of tyrannical leadership from both RI and outstanding schools, with unattainable targets and lack of praise or positive acknowledgement. Remember Ofsted doesn’t rate how well the leadership treat the staff at the school so this is something you will need to interpret yourself through talking with management and teaching staff at the school


We have looked at the pros and cons of working in an outstanding school, the possible advantages of working in a requires improvement school and whether student behaviour is generally better in outstanding schools and nothing is really conclusive. When choosing your next school you should read the Ofsted report in detail and see what the school does well and what it needs to improve on. Just importantly you absolutely need to visit the school, get a feeling for the SLT, teaching staff and students. Ask the right questions, go with your gut feeling and don’t let your judgement be clouded too much by an Ofsted rating. One thing our survey told us is that there is no Ofsted “requires improvement” definition.

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