Research School Network: Shaping school culture Culture is bigger than organisational structure and is not the decisions taken, but more a philosophy that shapes the thinking

Shaping school culture

Culture is bigger than organisational structure and is not the decisions taken, but more a philosophy that shapes the thinking

by Huntington Research School
on the

You would be hard pushed to find a school website without a mention of their mission statement or set of values they claim integral to their identity. Respect, Community and Relationships are some that instantly spring to mind and I’m sure you will know the set of principles your own organisation prioritises. Whatever the values outlined it is important to acknowledge that all schools have a culture; the question is, it the one you want? The ResearchEd Guide to Leadership, succinctly summarises school culture as big and awkward and probably the most important thing that is easy for leaders to talk about without taking action’. For the vision to match the day to day reality, culture has to be defined, shaped and based on an agreed set of values.

Culture is bigger than organisational structure and is not the decisions taken, but more a moral code or philosophy that shapes the thinking itself. It can be the platform for change and in great schools’, culture is everything, it is intentional, crafted and nurtured. Procedures and practice then need to be aligned so we can see’ the intended culture reflected in people’s actions and the way in which these beliefs are held. When creating an intentional culture, strong and clear social norms need to be embedded and these form the accepted behaviours both students and staff are expected to conform to in certain situations. Establishing these social norms, which help facilitate positive behaviours, requires real clarity that is over-communicated and continually reinforced.

Consider for a moment, how intentional the culture is in your current setting. How established are the social norms and how consistently can they be seen’ in people’s actions? It is maybe something that in the hectic school day is difficult to devote much time to reflect upon. It is though, a very valuable process and one in our own setting that we have gained a lot from. As a Catholic school, our Ethos and seven Hallmarks represent the foundations of the whole organisation and we have always been extremely proud of how these are reflected across school life. Through engaging with the process of self-reflection (via an external review and healthy dose of student voice), we came to the realisation that over time, an increasing centralisation and prioritisation of certain systems, although having upsides, had led to a less child focused approach which in places was undermining the relationships we were striving to nurture.

To closer align the values of any school with the day-to-day experiences of the children they serve, it is vital to take deliberate steps. In our case we have looked to pull back from being as systems led and have taken steps to reprioritise relationships. To support in this aim we have created roles to coach staff around their classroom approaches, are investing in new facilities, and have appointed for new specialist posts. We have also focused on clearly outlining expectations and the reasons for this to both students and staff and have been very deliberate in revisiting these messages on a regular basis though a very intentional use of agreed language. Focusing on Recommendation 1 of the Behaviour Guidance Report has led to the creation and circulation of in-depth student profiles which provide the foundations for staff to develop and maintain strong relationships.

Even with thorough consideration given to the Explore stage of the EEF Implementation Cycle, it is often not until you are well into the process that you fully appreciate where you are, the barriers that need to be overcome and how long the journey will actually take. There are most likely a multitude of reasons for this, with teachers and leaders often having blind spots around their school culture which may be barriers to change. In some cases, the steps listed above were all part of the plan, yet others more reactive to the shifting priorities that have emerged. In retrospect we would we have done anything differently? Most definitely! Have we achieved our end goals? Not yet. But we remain adaptable in walking the fine line of consistent application of culture, whilst still allowing for professional autonomy.

Shaping school culture is a process not an event, it will always be easier to define than see’ and hence the lack of good educational research to support on it. You can write a new policy/​procedure in an afternoon, communicate this in a staff meeting, however getting all staff to make the desired adjustments and embedding this into your culture can take a long time. Subsequently it is no surprise evaluation is difficult, however it is also vital in order to deliberately shape the culture you desire and hopefully ensure your outlined vision becomes the daily reality.

Andy Marsden, Head of Year, Notre Dame High School, Sheffield

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