‘Outstanding Teacher Programme’ – Don’t Believe the Hype

In Debates and Polemics, Evidence in Education by Alex Quigley16 Comments


It is a truth universally acknowledged, if something sounds too good to be true it probably is.

If a teacher training course promises a teacher can move from ‘good to outstanding‘ (let’s ignore the huge issue with those judgements for a moment) in a day – for a mere £500 – and over the course of ten lessons or so – it is likely exaggerating its benefits. It may well be able to foster a few timely gimmicks (no doubt centred around the de rigueur OFSTED-related term: progress), but it will not change the core habits of a teacher, nor make them a truly great teacher over the longer term. It may promise long-term support, but it will inevitably focus on short-term ‘results’.

Yesterday I found myself drafting a blog about what I consider to be great teachers at the very same time as seeing David Weston, CPD evaluation guru and CEO of the Teacher Development Trust, musing over whether there was any evidence for the effectiveness of the now ubiquitous ‘OTPs‘ (Outstanding Teacher Programmes) and ‘ITPs‘ (Improving Teacher Programmes).


Most Teaching Schools, many LEAs and an army of private providers are rattling out these ‘outstanding’ CPD opportunities for a premium rate. We should be asking questions about their effectiveness.

To my knowledge there is little evidence of their efficacy beyond anecdotal praise. If thousands are schools are involved in such training, with big money being spent, then we must do better to evaluate their impact. Yes – unsurprisingly, teachers who gain a singular outstanding lesson observation judgement after such training will be praiseworthy of such a course.

And yet, we know far too much about the flaws in our judgments when our own skills are called into question. The ‘Dunning Krugar effect‘ makes all of us think we are above average at pretty much everything! The ‘mere exposure effect‘ ensures we quickly like something we become familiar with (hell, many people even like the OFSTED lesson grading system!).

We need more substantial evidence of long term impact. Indeed, a truly ‘outstanding’ teacher ensures that their students achieve outstanding outcomes. These courses need to accrue the evidence to ensure this occurs to prove that they are really value for money.

I have read many books about what great teachers supposedly do. I’ve even attempted to write my own on the topic to help new teachers flinging themselves into the maelstrom of the classroom. What I’ve realised is that the answer is at once incredibly complex and simultaneously incredibly simple.

I’m sure that the best teachers are not defined in a singular lesson observation, nor do they direct their expertise by definitions of OFSTED outstandingness. Their expertise is not shaped in a CPD course or over the course of a mere half-term. It is gained through years of critical self-reflection, effort and simply going the hard yards. I’m contrast, these generic OTP courses often do little more than train teachers to meet a few of the latest whims of OFSTED.

Really great teaching requires sustained deliberate practice over not just months, but years. Unfortunately, you cannot brand or sell this solution! All the research about expertise tells us so. In popular culture, 10,000 hours is the heralded figure attributed to true expertise – with caveats. Regardless of any accurate qualification, it makes a mockery of an ‘outstanding in a day‘ or ‘outstanding in ten weeks‘ course.

You can argue such courses simply exaggerate their claims to sell their wares. This is likely true. ‘Outstanding’ gets plastered over a lot of CPD literature. You could argue that these programmes do no harm – that they spark reflection about practice, which is surely a good thing. Perhaps so, but a genuinely ‘continuous’ approach to teacher improvement, rooted in the daily practice of school-based training, is required and it would be more cost effective. Each and every school should define what great teaching is in their context and target all their CPD to this end. Sustained coaching, with a deep knowledge of the school context and the students, can help if it part of a long-term process of improvement.

I have watched many teachers who can act with a flourish in a lesson observation. All too often, their students fail to get the results their lesson observation practice would imply. There is no follow up or follow through. These CPD courses only perpetuate that short-termist thinking.

Truly outstanding teachers often don’t put on a fireworks show in observations because they can’t. Their skill is so developed into a daily habit that they couldn’t honestly change how they do what they do.

They do convey the complexity of their subject with passion and with a clarity befitting the needs of their students. They do get students to practice beyond the edges of their comfort zone, challenging their students to be a better version of themselves. These great teachers are often found having conversations with students at a lunchtime about why they didn’t match their expectations. They are found with students outside of lesson time, as they help them improve their work or they challenge them to match something like the effort and commitment that they themselves commit.

In short, really outstanding teachers go the hard yards out of the distorted glare of a lesson observation.

So, let’s question the hype of OTPs. Let’s pursue some robust evidence. Let’s throw of the shackles of pre-packaged ‘outstanding’ teaching and seek out the truly great teaching going on all around us.

Related reading:

For reasons of brevity, I have omitted the serious issues with grading lesson observations with accuracy. If you haven’t read this account of the limits of observations by Professor Rob Coe then you really should – see here.

Read this engaging account on what it takes to become an expert by Eric Barker – see here.



  1. Many thanks for yet another outstanding post Alex: always a pleasure to read. The concept of being ‘outstanding in ten’ is, in my extremely humble opinion, complete nonsense. Being outstanding takes time and is about a really solid reputation being built over a a number of years demonstrating consistently great outcomes for kids. Otherwise these programmes are just simply the stuff of performing monkeys which great teachers are certainly not. Henry Ford once said allegedly: “Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.”
    Cheers Alex and thanks again

  2. Hi Alex – many thanks for this post – this is the first time that I have felt moved to reply to a blog post! I had the dubious pleasure of completing an OTP last year. I attended 6 sessions out of school, missing teaching my own classes, to receive CPD that had no impact whatsoever on my practice. This is by no means a reflection on the course facilitators, who were doing what they could with training materials that were at best, pedestrian, and at worst, out of date. It was neither inspirational nor aspirational. I did receive a nice certificate at the end, however! To me, great CPD consists of engaging with current research, using lesson study and so building on the in-house expertise that every school undoubtedly has, and sticking at improving one area at a time, until you become an expert. You have to follow Berger’s maxim that if it isn’t perfect, it isn’t finished. You may well never attain a ‘perfect’ lesson, what ever that would look like but you can strive for perfection, and you do that by having a relentless focus on what really matters in the classroom, not on striving to achieve whatever the latest fad or sound bite is!

  3. I preface this reply by suggesting that the practice of labelling things outstanding is very much an Ofsted thingy. The Independent Schools Inspectorate are happy to label teaching excellent, but only achievement as exceptional. I remember spending a day with one of the national GTP providers some 5 years ago, and as part of our updating as mentors we watched a video of a Good lesson, then the coaching, and then the outstanding lesson. The audience sharply divided between those inspected by Ofsted and those by ISI, because the latter (led by me being very vocal it must be said) felt that the Good lesson had better learning evident within that the outstanding lesson, in which no child had been left behind (it must be said) but also in which no child was permitted to make mistakes and ‘fail’.
    Previous to that, I had attended other video watching sessions in which the course tutor demonstrated the same video being used by Ofsted/DfE previously to illustrate a falling lesson (compliant teaching permitting children to do mundane stuff) being flipped to be a good lesson (children listening to instructions and then getting on with doing some writing).
    I think what great teachers do is give their pupils, every one, attention, hope and an interest in doing well. And because we are what we repeatedly do, bit by bit, learners under such guidance acquire the motivation trifecta, promoted by Dan Pink amongst others, they being the 3 factors of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

  4. We used ITP and OTP in my last school. It soon became clear that the vehicle was becoming more important than the learning and lessons were being graded outstanding on the back of it too. Any attempt by me to inject some reasoning was met with the fact that my thinking was ‘old school’. It’s a shame that any new developments seem to try to strip away everything that worked in the past and still works today. Teach, model, scaffold and practice … Yes, use new ideas and activities, but dovetail them with everything that works and don’t criticise others who choose not to use them. It takes a village to raise a child … A well-worn phrase but still true.

  5. Alex, a very thought provoking post. I feel that this is a ‘part 1’ of a series which could run for a few issues. Teaching is a craft which is honed over years of conscious practise. The idea that Outstanding can be achieved in a few sessions undermines the process of professional development.

  6. I like your point about the fact that long-term deliberate practice cannot be packaged up. We’re working with schools on two or three year programmes of work designed to build teacher communities of practice around very specific areas the teacher feels they could improve upon. Yet, people still want results within a few weeks, and expect their “PD Days” to be entertaining and insightful in ways that a slower burn just cannot be: when we take that long perspective, PD Days tend to be focussed on THE TEACHERS and/or STUDENTS if they’re present, not on the ‘presenters’. Language and expectations are the number one barrier to making long term programmes work.

    1. Author

      Great comment Ewan. I particularly like your point about the focus on the teachers and not the presenters. I think there is a valuable role for facilitators and guides for schools, with the long term model crucial for ‘real’ improvement. The two/three year programme is a far better model than the one-offs and the termly quick fix – but you’re right – our human nature wants that ‘easy’ quick fix. I think we can change the expectation for some if we educate about how we change, develop habits and improve as professionals.

  7. There is a huge difference between the ‘one lesson wonder’ performer who can be outstanding in the short term and the truly outstanding who deliver consistently.
    I think these courses can highlight best practice but it only becomes a habit if ,as you say , practiced constantly deliberately and evaluated.
    Outstanding teachers I also feel have to fail , because only from failure can you know where the limits are (I tell myself this as I constantly crash snowboarding/mountain biking etc) from this failure you can model resilience and true learning to your students.

  8. I think you dismiss Outstanding Teacher Programme unfairly. The programme gives participants the opportunity to reflect, discuss and share practice in sessions spread of about a term. The programme provides stimulus through lessons observations and activities to facilitate this discussion. It is part of a journey to becoming a more reflective teacher; the onus is on the teacher to carry on this process between sessions and after the course finishes. Tasks set between session promote this. It’s not a magic wand and I don’t think the programme claims to be. It certainly isn’t about one- off lesson observations and being whizzy in the classroom. Participants should be considering how students learn and how they support this. My experience of delivering the programme (and I have worked closely over time with Richard Lockyer who developed the programme) is that it avoids Ofsted reference and criteria. I agree with the section where you describe outstanding teachers who “hard yard” – it is not the glamour of the one off lesson – but my view is that the OTP complements this. I can’t emphasise enough that it is not about gimmicky lessons but about deep discussion of great practice.

    Our LA commissions places on our OTP programme and can see the impact on teachers in schools when they evaluate their progress – local HMI reports are starting to refer in general terms to programmes, such as these – which are starting to helping to move schools forward

  9. Pingback: 'Outstanding Teacher Programme': Don't Believe the Hype - Part 2 | HuntingEnglishHuntingEnglish

      1. I went on the otp and found it improved my teaching markedly. The focus was on delivering consistent quality to students. There were no gimmicky quick fixes but plenty of quality dialogue with peers leading to subtle yet effective improvement to my practice. This was in 2011. My brother is currently on the course and hates it. It seems that it’s efficacy is down to the facilitators and their understanding of the ethos of the course. My experience involved no Ofsted graded lessons, just peer to peer critique. In his centre the facilitators formally observe the attendees and grade the lessons, which is clearly out of touch with current practice and missing the point of the original otp idea.

    1. Author

      Good for you! Now, if we can work out what ‘outstanding’ means and track what impact it has on student outcomes then we may find out something usefuL!

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