What Makes a School Good


Over time, educational systems and schools under their control have become increasingly complex. It seems that education’s prime purose of educating students has become consumed by rules, regulations, procedures and the ascendancy of all absorbing accountability. Justifying the existence of schools and their systems has taken over educational front-running. What has been forgotten is that “schools are for children” (Eedle, 1979).

For schools to be good, they must refocus on what they should prioritise. The focus should be on students, teachers, support staff, parents and the community working “together”. The synergy (collective energy) deriving from such a relationship will repurpose and refocus schools in a way that brings out the best.

The good news is that challenged schools can rebadge as positive, purposeful places of teaching and learning by building quality environments that confirm them as reasonable. Awareness, effort, commitment and true purpose can guarantee and sustain this transformation.

What Makes A School Good

“A good school has an involved staff working together, pushing themselves and their students to be the best. Failure is not an option for the teacher or the students. In good schools, teachers have a thorough and up-to-date knowledge of their subjects and a deep understanding of how students learn particular subjects.” (1)

That quotation identifies a key focus of good schools. It confirms that good schools need and have knowledgeable teachers who worry cooperatively and collaboratively to further the educational opportunities offered to students. But the definition does not go far enough because three other groups’ contributions are essential. If the roles of principals, parents, and, most notably, students are overlooked, the school becomes an organisation that can quickly tilt and tumble. I understand ‘Educational Matters’ focussing on teachers, but the definition of ‘goodness’ cannot stand based on considering teachers in isolation. Others also have a stake and interest in the operation and outcomes.

A more fulsome definition of a good school, including people and properties that make a school good, was offered in eight considerations penned by an American elementary teacher Shawnta Barnes.

“Teachers must believe all students can learn.

Students from all backgrounds who are racially, ethnically, linguistically or economically different are learning.

Teachers must know their content well.

The school communicates with parents clearly and frequently about Important issues and asks (others) for input before making decisions.

The principal must support teachers and build teacher leaders. A principal cannot run a school alone, but many feel they must. They micromanage, lead with fear and refuse to delegate to others. This creates toxic environments and leads to a rotating cast of teachers in the school.

Schools must be safe.

Schools need appropriate up-to-date resources.

Teachers should not be racist, bullies, pedophiles or present any danger to the school community.” (2; part emphasis mine; bracket mine)

These eight precepts offer a brief but rounded position on what should be the focus of education.

Education is primarily about people; interestingly, Barnes touches on material resources in only one of her eight points. Reading and reflecting on her paper brought back memories of our educational system in the Northern Territory and the underpinning philosophy upon which the NT Educational System was founded.

Barnes’s eight propositions emphasise function and the interactions of people within rather than focusing primarily on the structure and the organisational mechanics of schools.

Proposing Good Schools in the Northern Territory

The Northern Territory, with its then brand new accountable government, assumed responsibility for educational delivery in 1979. In March of that year, all school principals in the NT were called to a conference in Katherine, a regional town some 280 kilometres south of Darwin. There we met our new Director (the term these days is Chief Executive Officer) of Education, Dr James Eedle.

Eedle was keen to define a clear purpose and intention for Territory Schools. His message was short but profoundly impacting. Addressing us all as “ladies and gentlemen”, he said that in going forward as founders of a new system, we should “always remember that schools are for children.” (3)

Dr Eedle added that schools and systems could quickly disengage from remembering this point because of a misplaced focus on school and systemic organisation. His retort was that structure should always serve the reality that schools were for the educational and developmental furtherance of children.

In systemic terms, the Eedle imprimatur was sadly short-lived. His primary focus (“schools are for children”) has long been supplanted by the over-enthusiastic willingness to structure and restructure to where his original appeal seems to be all but forgotten.

Systems (and schools within) that are predisposed toward structure (often aligning with empire building) also deny the tenets of the Melbourne Declaration on Schools that was drafted and endorsed in 2008. This statement proposed that schools should concentrate on holistic education beyond academics and the social, emotional and moral/spiritual needs of children growing through their educational years toward adulthood.

Fortunately, there are schools in the Northern Territory and elsewhere that are good. These are schools where Eedle’s appeal and the 2008 Melbourne Declaration marry comfortably with the elements of good schools identified by Shawnta Barnes.

During my 40-odd years as an educator in both WA and the Northern Territory, I had the chance to learn a great deal about the elements of teaching, learning and development encapsulated within good schools. These markers (and others besides) go a long way toward making a school good.

Ingredients that help make Schools Good

• Students, teachers, support staff and parents/carers who feel a sense of shared belonging for and within ‘their’ school. They develop the sense of oneness and unity that characterise good schools.

• A good school is one in which everybody feels comfortable. This feeling of comfort and belonging is crucial for students because sometimes educational processes can overlook them as the cohort that matters most.

• It is paramount that children feel safe and good schools offer the assurance of safety. Matters that need to be followed up for the sake of student safety and well-being are managed both promptly and sensitively. Principals also don’t wait, hoping that issues will go away. Dealing with challenges while they are molehills rather than waiting until they turn into mountains is a hallmark of good schools.

• Accepting students and staff as ‘equal together’ regardless of race, colour, and creed helps make a school good. In an age of increasing diversity, the essence of a good school is not to create boundaries and divisions based on the socio-cultural definition: The focus is on collectivity that draws all those with stake and interest in the school “together as one”.

• Too often, there is a tendency within education and other organisations for problems, poor results, and different adverse outcomes to be blamed on teachers and students. If results are positive, leaders often claim the credit for success and bask in media glory to the exclusion of staff and students whose efforts and commitment have earned those outcomes. This inversion can quickly lead to the diminution of esprit de corp within schools. Contra-wise, schools that recognise those to whom credit is due are places that build a positive culture. It is sufficient for principals and school leadership team members to identify with those earning recognition through the association they share. These are “we” schools in which students and staff value each other and rejoice in the accomplishment of peers. They share rich connectivity that does not exist where individuals seek elevation by pushing others into the background.

• All too frequently, incoming Principals and leadership teams develop agendas that do not consider the school’s history and development that preceded their arrival. Retreating to Genesis 1:1 (4) and establishing an operational position without considering the school’s history and past progress is unprofessional. Discounting the past by starting over devalues the traditions upon which schools have been built. While change can be beneficial, acting in a way that arrogantly dismisses the past causes goodwill to wither and destroys morale. Good schools build upon the past, for this is ethos strengthening.

• Good schools are value-based places of teaching and learning. Identified values reinforced by their culture and operation are a focus for staff and students. These operational principles are reinforced through recognition and practice. A published values statement serves as a constant reminder of school operational precepts.

• Those values, often espoused in school mottos, underpin teaching and learning. They attest to the need for holistic educational development where social, emotional and moral/spiritual aspects of education embrace character enhancement. These schools are about more than academic considerations. Their focus is on the development of the whole person and. preparing today’s students for entry into life’s world as our next generation of adults and decision-makers.

It is the Atmosphere that Ultimately Counts

In good schools, principals and leadership teams offer reassurance and build confidence within their teaching and support staff groups, student cohorts and their communities of parents and carers. This does not mean lowering standards but acknowledging and appreciating their efforts. Making that appreciation public can help through sharing the efforts of students and teachers with the broader community.

Well-being cannot be bought as a material resource. Neither can it be lassoed, harnessed or tied down. The ‘feel’ of a school is an intangible quality that generates from within. It is a product of the professional relationships developed by those within the organisation. The atmosphere, which grows from the tone and harmony blossoming within schools, is precious. That feeling can also be lost if positive recognition and appreciation of students and staff is discounted.

It is up to Principals and leadership teams to ensure that positive atmosphere, precious yet fragile, is built and maintained. It is easy to lose the positive feeling, so necessary if an organisation is to grow and thrive on the basis of its human essence.

I recommend the wisdom of building spirit within our schools. It will add to feelings of staff satisfaction and well-being. Stability and happiness within school workplaces, embracing staff, students and community, will be the end result. And schools with these characteristics will be good.


1. educationmattersmag.com.au Frontispiece

2. Barnes, Shawnta S., “Here Are 8 Things That Make a Good School” in Better Conversation, Posted on July 12 2019

3. Dr Eedle addressed all Northern Territory Government School Principals during a three day workshop/conference held in Katherine in March 1979.

4. “In the beginning”, The first three words from Genesis 1:1, The Holy Bible.

Henry Gray

Retired Principal

April 18 2023

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