Professor Deborah Eyre, Founder, and Chair at High Performance Learning, discusses why and how school leaders should prioritise building a strong and purposeful culture to create a high performing school. Something that is even more relevant in schools that may still be faced with hybrid learning. It takes a combination of vision, process, consistency and investment – and measurement is critical to reinforce and gauge progress.
When asked to describe their school most school leaders start with location, age groups taught, ownership or governance. Policy makers focus on structures, for example, in England a plethora for new structures have been introduced in an effort to raise standards, with academies and free schools being just the latest in a long line of innovations. This focus on structures is reinforced by external regulators.
But if you want to create a high performing school then the evidence is that culture is what really makes the difference and it ‘trumps structure’1 every time. This is because if you have everyone in alignment with the culture then you need to spend much less time on monitoring, as everyone knows how to act in line with the culture and for the most part does. It also creates a sense of satisfaction and well-being with staff, students and parents all feeling this is a school they trust and believe in.
So how do you build a strong and purposeful school culture?
You need to have a clear vision for what you want to achieve and that vision must be compelling not just mechanistic. So it’s focused on the core business of the school which is the children and young people. The kind of student you want and the conditions that make it possible for students to become those people. A vision is not about becoming judged as an outstanding school or about exam results. Those are some of the outcomes that having a strong culture will deliver. They are not an end in themselves. A vision needs to be realisable but it also needs to be attractive enough for everyone to want to get behind it.
Does your vision meet this criteria?
It’s fine having a vision, but that vision will not become the reality unless there are clear processes for enacting your principals, values and beliefs. Everyone needs to walk-the-talk. If you want a culture where everyone, children and adults, are encouraged to be the best possible version of themselves then what is in place to make that happen. What can you point to? Where in your practices do you demonstrate your values? If you want children and young people to be engaged in their learning then what exactly do you need to do to encourage that? In a positive school culture the focus is on what you can do to encourage the behaviours you want to see rather than focusing on what you do to avoid or penalise when it occurs.
Do your policies and practices create a positive culture?
- Consistency and reinforcement
So you have a strong vision and you have established practices but those in themselves are still not enough. You have to communicate, communicate, communicate. Keep talking about the vision and keep reinforcing the practice. Encourage all staff in middle and senior leadership positions to talk about the vision and reinforce the practices. People in the school community come and go. It’s only by frequently and regularly talking and reinforcing that it stays compelling. Plan it in and check you have done it.
Draw attention to great examples of your culture in practice - both in terms of student activity and behaviour and also staff activity and behaviours. Make it visible. And not just teaching staff, a whole school culture includes the entire school community – teaching assistants, bus drivers, lunch supervisors.
If they are part of the school, they must be part of the culture.
- Invest for the long term
It takes time to build a strong culture and it can deepen in significance overtime. Remember, it is all about people. Start by leveraging the staff most sympathetic to the vision – the most trusted and reliable. Leave the neigh-sayers until later, most will come around in due course. Choose new staff who buy into the vision. Make it explicit as part of the recruitment process. Your student body are the people who reflect the culture. Use your student leaders to strengthen and enhance it. Keep on building. Never be satisfied.
Great leaders are relentlessly dissatisfied.
- Choose sophisticated measurement techniques
It’s not easy to measure a culture but you can. You can look at numerical incidence of examples of your culture happening in practice. You can look at case study examples of practice. You can gather quotes that reference aspects of your culture. You can ask for feedback from parents around culture as part of parent surveys and you can do exit interviews with students.
Culture and covid
It’s been powerful to observe that during Covid students in schools with a strong culture felt that they remained connected. For example, in our regular meetings with HPL World Class Schools, principals indicated that they were not experiencing from their students the sense of alienation being reported by many other schools. Their students knew what was expected of them and they knew what they could expect from their teachers and friends. They felt part of a community. The trust was unspoken but it was certainly there. Of course, it’s always better to be face-to-face but the Covid shock demonstrated powerfully that when the totally unexpected happens a strong culture helps you to navigate it in a way that an over-reliance on structures never can.