Culture your school’s ethos

11th March 2016 at 00:00

It is common for headteachers to talk of a school’s culture; of how everything they do stems from that culture and how they make every effort to work within it, or to refine it. Yet how many headteachers truly understand what goes into creating a culture? How many truly understand what a “culture” is? And how many see it as a barrier when it can actually be a benefit?

A culture is usually an amalgamation of many factors: an organisation’s origins and history, traditions, iconic staff members, well-known former staff members and the “feeling” that people get when they work there or visit. For schools, past teachers, former students and triumphs can all go into the pot that makes the school’s culture what it is.

It’s important that headteachers don’t assume that they know the culture of a school but get out there and talk to the key people about what they think the culture is. They may be surprised by some responses that they receive.

It is important, too, that heads appreciate that a school’s culture is not a straitjacket. It’s an old argument that cultural factors can form a significant barrier to necessary change in any organisation. In fact, culture should, and can, be an enabler to a school’s progress.

An article I read recently in the Harvard Business Review (“How company culture shapes employee motivation”, explores the relationship between organisational culture and worker motivation. While I’ve never been a huge fan of survey-based research, several aspects of the article struck a chord with me. It highlighted aspects of an organisational culture that can possibly foster beneficial outcomes.

The first key aspect is that people enjoy themselves. So is the culture at your school one where enjoyment of the craft of teaching is a priority above all else? Or are staff bogged down in planning and marking and is the emphasis on getting kids over the line, not on staff and students loving what they do?

Second, people work because they value the impact of that work; so, do your colleagues still get a buzz from the underlying objectives of education, and/or from helping a pupil grow not only in terms of their knowledge, but also in terms of achievement and their self-esteem?

Third, people work because they see their day-to-day tasks as being part of a longer journey towards some greater aspiration in the future. Can your teachers see the bigger picture? Is your school’s culture one of high aspiration and career progression or is it more stagnant?

Think hard about the roles that you assign to your colleagues. Do you give them the space to enjoy what they do and to be innovative? Do you create clear openings for – and assist them to reach – their long-run goals?

A school’s culture is central to its success. But it is not a stable entity. Nor is it something that you are stuck with. Seek out what the culture is perceived to be, define it and then, if needed, set about it changing it.

John Burns is professor of management and accountancy at the University of Exeter Business School

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