Policy First 2010: Ethos and Culture in Schools in Challenging Circumstances

22nd November 2010

It is only by understanding the anatomy of school ethos and culture that we can successfully operate on it.

“Current discussions about education reform miss out the crucial ingredient of ethos and culture” argues report editor Daisy Christodoulou in her introduction to “Ethos and Culture in Schools in Challenging Circumstances”, a Policy First report published today.

When I was first asked to contribute to this year’s report which is written by Teach First ambassadors I was taken aback. I realised that my understanding of ethos and culture’s was seriously underdeveloped and I don’t think that I am alone in this. In the world of school improvement I have worked with many people who use the term “school culture” but few who have a clear idea of what it really means.

People inevitably focus on the recommendations in a report like this. However, what makes this report important is how clearly it lays out what school ethos and culture is. Only by understanding the anatomy of school ethos and culture can we successfully operate on it. The report argues that ethos and culture “emerges from coherence between common experience, community symbols/institutional processes and shared values and beliefs”. This means that everyone in a school needs to be clear what the intended ethos and culture is so that everything happening in the school can follow from it. Once the ethos is clearly established, staff can concentrate on creating and enforcing a consistent experience that reflects and contributes to pupil and staff values and beliefs. With clarity on these, symbols like uniform and school crest can successfully represent culture. These symbols become tools for communicating and making the intangible concept of culture more tangible. Keeping this understanding of ethos and culture in mind is at the heart of impacting on it.

So why does ethos matter? The report argues that ethos and culture helps schools, teachers and pupils to improve. When it comes to pupil improvement, the opening chapter not only talks about attainment but also pupil happiness. For me, this is firstly because feeling embedded in a community that shares a culture gives young people a sense of belonging. Secondly, it makes them feel safer and more trusting: where there is a shared culture people act on the basis of shared norms so that things become more predictable and the environment less chaotic. I fondly remember that during my time at St. George’s I watched the school improving year on year and watched pupils visibly relax, almost breathing a sigh of relief as they stopped having to worry about what might happen next. Thirdly, a positive, learning-focused ethos changes pupils’ relationships to learning. Where there is an anti-learning culture, studying has negative connotations: to work and learn is not to do something that is valued. But if the culture changes and becomes one that values learning, pupils behave differently because their actions have a different meaning and are accepted by others.
The report makes many recommendations but those I feel most strongly about are:
1. “Senior leaders should maintain a strong, visible presence around school. They should teach lessons carry out regular duties and, through this, embody both leadership and culture to staff and students.”
Whilst responsibility for ethos and culture is shared by all, Senior leaders are ultimately accountable for enforcing it and can themselves function as a symbol of it. They cannot do this if they are hiding in an office.
2. “Schools should make ethos and culture clear when advertising and recruiting.”
The people who are in a school have the biggest impact on ethos and culture. Different schools will have different cultures and teachers should be able to take this into account when applying for jobs. Culturally aligned teachers are much more likely to provide a consistent common experience
3. “Schools should guarantee new staff a set amount of induction time.”
In my chapter, I use Deal and Kennedy’s definition of culture as “the way things are done around here” It takes time to learn this and teachers who don’t know how things are done can be a source of damaging inconsistency.
At a recent round-table discussion on teacher quality, I was struck that participants (myself included) focused exclusively on teachers’ ability to raise attainment. I fundamentally disagree with the view that this is the sole purpose of teaching and the only gauge of teacher quality. I welcome this report partly because positive ethos and culture have instrumental value in raising attainment and this report provides good techniques for developing this but more importantly, because it encourages teachers and school leaders to create a positive culture and ethos on the grounds that it is valuable in itself.
The report “Ethos and Culture in Schools in Challenging Circumstances” is available here
The Policy First Team at the Launch in Parliament: (and some scary eyes from me)