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Not sure what it is but I want it

It's a familiar term, but 'school ethos' is hard to define, as David McMurtry discovered in a survey of heads in the north-east

School ethos is often understood as being intangible, the environment or atmosphere which we perceive or feel around a school, rather than something we can explain. It is also pervasive, with every aspect of school life contributing to it. But what do people mean by it?

Headteachers have a critical influence upon school ethos and an important role to play in developing our understanding and practice in "ethos building". Recent research, conducted by staff at Aberdeen university's School of Education, collated and analysed the views of primary and secondary heads in the northeast of Scotland on a range of aspects of school ethos.

They were asked what they understand by the term, how it can be achieved and to describe what a school with a good ethos is like. Each head articulated his or her own understanding and collectively described more than 260 activities or strategies which they believe develop the 33 characteristics of a school with a good ethos, in order of priority.

Only two characteristics were prioritised by a majority of the survey's participants: l developing good relationships between all community members;

* fostering a sense of belonging to the school.

A third characteristic - having high expectations of pupils to achieve and attain - was highlighted by half of those asked.

Twenty current priorities in developing ethos were mentioned, 16 of them by only one participant. Only three of the priorities for development mentioned implementing national educational initiatives: meeting the requirements of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, developing practice in education for citizenship, and the creation of new community schools.

The most significant conclusion seems to be that there is little consensus among heads regarding the characteristics of a school with good ethos and how best to achieve them.

It may be that initiatives, policies and practices which directly promote the development of ethos (in Scotland those of the Executive, Her Majesty's Inspectors of Education and the Scottish Schools Ethos Network) are not having a significant impact or resulting in shared understanding, common responses or similar practice in ethos building.

It also suggests there are insufficient opportunities for heads and other staff to engage in dialogue about it or collaborative development work at a local or national level.

It may be that initiatives to develop school ethos are having an impact but heads choose to develop their own practice because the characteristics that constitute a good ethos, and the action required to develop them, vary according to the context of each school.

The research may imply that ethos building requires staff, pupils and parents to determine the key characteristics and what strategies and activities they should engage in to create and maintain them.

Overall, the participants in the Aberdeen research see the current educational climate in Scotland benefiting the development of ethos. They mentioned 29 national initiatives which they see as helpful and 24 which are limiting.

Two-thirds said that the Scottish Executive's emphasis on inclusive schools and education was aiding the development of ethos. Reasons for this included: l it has resulted in many pupils attending who are an asset and who otherwise would not have come to the school;

* the policy is as beneficial to those without additional needs as to those who have them;

* there is a greater understanding and appreciation of difference and diversity by all.

However, providing additional support was seen to be expensive in staff time and there are significantly more demands being placed upon staff, which limits the time available for other activities crucial to maintaining good ethos.

The research shows that heads think a lot about ethos but understand and develop the concept differently. We are not creating enough opportunities to share this experience and expertise.

And while schools should be developing in a way which reflects their needs, we still have much to learn about what ethos means and what a school with a good one is like.

David McMurtry is a lecturer at the School of Education, Aberdeen University

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