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Which comes first? School culture or top results?

High-performing schools tend to promote a culture of positivity in everything they do, say researchers at one thinktank

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High-performing schools tend to promote a culture of positivity in everything they do, say researchers at one thinktank

It is received wisdom that an intangible but important aspect of a school is its atmosphere: the way it looks, the way it sounds, the way pupils behave as you walk through the doors.

Anyone who has worked in, or visited a school will have asked themselves: why do schools “feel” the way they do? But how deep do those initial impressions go? Do the visible artefacts of school culture (uniform, posters, inspirational quotes or mission statements) translate into meaningful day-to-day practice? Crucially, which cultures are effective and which are not?

Our latest research published today by the Department for Education reveals that the depth and consistency of school practices and culture can play an integral role in disadvantaged pupils’ educational success.

Our analysis of hundreds of interviews with senior leaders, teachers, governors and parents; discussions with pupils; pupil diary entries and school observations allowed us to compare the cultures and practices of schools that achieve stronger and weaker results for their disadvantaged pupils. In doing so, we were able to delve into the nuance of how higher- and lower-performing schools function.

The cornerstone for school performance appears to be the extent to which culture permeates throughout a school. The high-performing schools in our research went further than others to embed cultures not just among staff and students but also with parents, trainee teachers, support staff, as well as the leadership team and governors. This did not mean that pupils and adults in these schools were automatons – rather, their individual practice varied but was consistent with that of others in the school.

For example, we found that, compared with lower-performing schools, teachers in high-performing schools believed more firmly that their practices, often common to many schools, such as tracking pupil progress through a school year, would have an impact – for instance, in relation to attainment at GCSE, behaviour, or parental aspirations and expectations. These schools also went further than others to ensure that their culture was shared by pupils’ families, by dedicating more resources, including non-teaching staff, to work with parents.

High-performing schools also worked hard to ensure a positive culture reached every corner of their school. For instance, celebrating pupil success and achievements at every opportunity, and building such celebrations into their weekly timetable while actively including parents.

The “deep and consistent” positive culture that we found in high-performing schools informed a range of consistent practices. For instance, despite the challenges they faced, higher-performers were more likely to approach the recruitment and development of newly qualified teachers (NQTs) with positivity, rather than being consumed by fears that the school was not in a good position to support NQTs.

Higher-performing schools were also more likely to have high expectations for disadvantaged pupils’ academic achievement. They also often used pupils’ idealistic aspirations (eg, being a footballer) as a "hook", rather than seeing such ambitions as unrealistic and problematic.

Once school practices are in place, it’s easy to overlook how deeply embedded or consistent they are and what impact this has on school culture. However, as our research shows, reviewing the finer details of school practice can be useful. International literature on the links between culture and practices in schools and school effectiveness suggests a number of ways in which schools’ values, purpose and ethos influence school effectiveness and outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. Our findings corroborate this literature. High-performing schools demonstrate greater cohesiveness, sense of collective purpose and values that were shared among all staff, pupils and parents.

The question of causality remains. Are the distinctively deep and consistent positive cultures that we found in the higher-performing schools we visited the reason for that high performance, or does high performance itself create the conditions for a positive culture to be embedded within a school?

We found compelling evidence of causality flowing both ways. It’s easy to see how securing solid performance can have a positive impact on morale, encourage a school to set particularly aspirational targets for future performance, and create the "breathing space" a school needs in order to broaden its sights and work intensively on parental engagement, for instance. In short, a school’s performance can have a formative impact on its organisational culture.

The authors are all researchers at LKMco

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