We need to talk about: Culture – Part 2 by @GeographyTom9

Vision determines actions determines culture.

Why culture? Culture matters because it exists in every school, whether it is consciously acknowledged or not. (Bulach, Lunenberg and Potter, 2008) Culture is essential to great schools, as Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote: “that which is essential is invisible to the eye”. There is no better way of capturing the importance of school culture.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Tom Highnett and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here. Read previous posts by clicking here.

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To pick up from my previous post, found here, the starting point for the promotion and realisation of culture is through the development and sharing of a vision. Jerald (2006) argues that culture is created by vision. The logic follows that vision determines actions determines culture.

There is huge abundance of literature that cites the impacts of a positive culture. It has been shown a strong school culture can a) influence the motivation to learn (Eccles et al., 1993) and b) reduce the impacts of socio-economic background on educational success (Astor, Benbenisty and Estrada, 2009). Furthermore, studies have shown the impact of a positive school culture extends beyond academic outcomes and enhances students well-being. (Haahr, Nielsen, Hansen, & Jakobsen, 2005; OECD, 2009)

The real challenge when it comes to culture is the question of how to make it positive and sustain it. What follows is a brief overview of my thoughts on the means to creating a great school culture:

1. Secure buy in to the vision

The previous post discussed the importance of creating and sharing a vision. To create an effective culture, all levels of the school community should feel a part of this culture and should feel ownership of this.

To ensure this – the vision should be promoted and shared. Everyone should be singing from the same hymn sheet, as it were.

The way in which this buy-in is secured varies, institutions can actively seek the views of members or it can be secured by allowing colleagues to inform their practice with the vision. The key to this, whichever approach is taken, is clarity. Your vision must be understood and shared by all stakeholders – students, teachers, parents. If you have buy in, it reduces conflict and upset and allows the real focus to be about the business of educating young people.

The best way to secure buy in? Sweat the small stuff – Be humble and follow your own expectations. Model the behaviors you would expect to see, a lot is learnt from actions.

2. Ensure shared understandings

Building on point 1, an effective culture must have shared norms. A shared set of languages and routines adopted across the institution. All teachers should be clear on expectations of student behavior, and enforce the same consequence in defiance of these expectations. Only by reinforcing expectations constantly and cleary can buy in be secured. By removing inconsistency and indecision, it frees teachers, and students, to fulfill their role fully – teaching and learning, without fear or misunderstanding.

A shared understanding of quality cannot be ignored. The external measures by which schools are held to account, most notably student results and Ofsted reports, are an indicator of a schools quality. If teachers and leaders do not share the same vision of quality (from a teaching and learning perspective) you can be almost certain there will be an unbalance in the aforementioned external measures. Only through a shared definition of quality can we ensure that students are always receiving a high quality learning experience and that all teachers are able to develop and reflect on their practice.

3. Develop tolerance and acceptance

Great school cultures are those in which difference is accepted and celebrated. Schools are often so multicultural and diverse that we take this as a given and do nothing to encourage students to actively engage with this. We need to be brave in challenging difficult views and instead expose our students to as many different cultural experiences as possible – it is our duty as educators to create the safe spaces in which students examine, question, affirm and integrate cultural difference into their wider world view.

The development of a positive culture that can allow staff to feel valued and deliver their best work is a challenge, especially in the seemingly ever-changing English education system, but it is a challenge to meet head on.

The best, and happiest, institutions are those with great cultures. They are defined by their willingness to face down challenge and use it to inform their work – staff and students are valued and empowered. As the expressions goes: “None of us is smarter than all of us.” Collaboration and shared understandings are at the heart of great cultures.


–       Astor, R. A., Benbenisty, R., & Estrada, J. N. (2009). School violence and theoretically atypical schools: The principal’s centrality in orchestrating safe schools. American Educational Research Journal, 46, 423–461

–       Bulach, C., Lunenburg, F. C., & Potter, L. (2008). Creating a culture for high-performing schools: A comprehensive approach to school reform. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

–       Eccles, J. S., Wigfield, A., Midgley, C., Reuman, D., MacIver, D., & Feldlaufer, H. (1993). Negative effects of traditional middle schools on students’ motivation. Elementary School Journal, 93, 553–574

–       Haahr, J. H., Nielsen, T. K., Hansen, M. E., & Jakobsen, S. T. (2005). Explaining student performance. Evidence from the international PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS surveys.

–       Jerald, C.D. (December, 2006). Issue Brief. School Culture: “The Hidden Curriculum.” Washington, DC: The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement.

–       OECD. (2009). Creating effective teaching and learning environment: First results of Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS)

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