Too many heads lack the courage of their convictions on school discipline – and pay the price

Too many schools deemed 'inadequate' or 'requires improvement' have cultures that are not conducive to learning and encouraging pupil progress and achievement, explains one headteacher

Neville Beischer

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All schools are different in terms of history, make-up and evolution, but "outstanding" schools have one thing in common: cultures that support great practice. This includes high academic expectations, excellent teaching and learning, impeccable behaviour, fantastic attainment and achievements and, most importantly, high levels of commitment from parents, pupils and staff.

Creating an outstanding culture, therefore, has to be a headteacher’s single most important job; those who neglect it do so at their peril.

As Edgar Schein, a former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, wrote: “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture. If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening.”

So many schools that Ofsted has deemed "inadequate" or "requires improvement" have cultures that are not conducive to learning and encouraging pupil progress and achievement. The danger is that this negative culture dominates every aspect of school life, strangling all the positive aspects that schools need to develop.

I often liken schools to gardens. If you neglect a garden, it soon becomes overgrown and thick with weeds. Eventually, the weeds take over the garden in the same way that a poor culture takes control of a school.

However, there is no quick fix. Many new headteachers feel under enormous pressure to demonstrate immediate improvements to their school. This is especially true if they are in a failing school, and therein lies the problem: school cultures cannot be fixed overnight.

But things can be so very different if culture is created and managed.

The story of my school, Wright Robinson in Gorton, Manchester, began back in 1997 when Manchester City Council teamed up with Tony Blair’s Labour government and decided to rebuild the school under the PFI initiative. We did not move into the new building until September 2007, so we had 10 years to plan our move.

However, moving into bright new buildings does not always have the positive and lasting benefits that it should have. This is because, all too often, the old school culture is transferred to the new school along with all the old bad practices.

We decided to leave behind in the old school everything we disliked, to be symbolically demolished and destroyed with the old buildings. This included poor attendance, poor behaviour, poor expectations by parents and some staff, low academic expectations, poor teaching and learning in many cases – things that typify failing schools across the country.

We also decided to bring the strengths of the old culture with us and build on these. They included the good relationships between many staff and pupils, the deeply held respect for teachers by many of the local families and their children and the good teaching and learning where it existed in some areas of the college.

We were unaware of Schein’s work at the time, but in the process of doing this, we were taking control of the culture and creating it and managing it, as Schein advocated. "In most organisational change efforts, it is much easier to draw on the strengths of the culture than to overcome the constraints by changing the culture."

On its own, a new school and a positive outlook is not enough to bring about the huge shift in school culture required. Three other factors are instrumental.

First, teamwork. Team Wright Robinson is the way we approach everything we do now.  Parents, staff and pupils only talk about themselves as part of the team now. There is no them and us, just the team. The team has one goal and a mantra: “Believe in the team and the team will believe in you.”

Second is the extremely strong stance on standards. There has to be a ruthless adherence to the pursuit of high standards in every area of college life: uniform, behaviour, academic work and homework. Deviation from this is not tolerated, and the consequences for students who do not conform are dire. Isolation and eventual removal follow any repeated refusal to be part of the team and adopt its values. There is no compromise. This hard line is vital because we have had first-hand experience of the devastating effects that an alternative and often negative culture can have on children and their progress, happiness and development. But a strong pastoral system supports every child regardless of ability or background, so exclusions are the last resort.

So many headteachers lack the courage of their convictions on school discipline and often pay the price for this.

Third is the huge change in intake over the past 10 years. When I arrived in 1990, it was entirely white working-class and remained so for the next 15 years. Gorton is a part of Manchester that suffered from post-industrial decline, with high unemployment and all the associated education problems that accompany this: low aspirations, poor attendance and low attainment.

The arrival into east Manchester of mainly black African children and their families with their high expectations and respect for education changed the culture beyond belief. The work ethic changed dramatically and is now excellent; the attendance, behaviour and attainment of all the students is outstanding.

It is the culture of a school that is the single most important factor in whether a school is successful

Our journey from requires improvement to outstanding shows what can be achieved if, in Schein’s words, “you create and manage your school culture and do not let it manage you or your school”.

Neville Beischer is headteacher of Wright Robinson College in Gorton, Manchester.

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