We need to talk about: Culture – Part 1

This is the first part of a double blog post on culture – the second intends to consider how we can create positive cultures in school.

Having browsed through various educational news articles over the past few weeks, I am struck by the number of stories detailing the teacher numbers crisis we currently face, illustrated most recently (and most significantly) in the NAO Report on teaching recruitment. It is important to note. However, it’s not just about recruitment – it’s about retention too!

These news stories always get me wondering, just why are teachers leaving (or just plain not joining) the profession in such numbers? I see this attributed to large-scale structural issues of workload and Ofsted pressure and believe me, I sympathize with these issues. However, I feel that many of these issues can be countered at the school level.

So, what’s the cause?

I believe, for many teachers, what it comes down to is the culture of their school. I believe culture has a huge say in how teachers feel about their roles and the work they are doing. It is easy to read an article about the increasing disillusionment of the teaching profession and use this as a prism through which to analyse one’s own experiences and reach the same conclusions the author discusses: workload, Oftsed, new accountability measures, Performance Related Pay.

Whilst I appreciate these are very real concerns, I think the real issue is right in front of us: look to what’s happening in your own school.

I accept that what happens in your school may well be a magnification of these national issues, but be critical, what is it, in your own school, that you really dislike? However you choose to answer this question (let me know!), I believe that issue comes back to the culture of the school in which you work.

What is school culture?

“School culture is the set of norms, values and beliefs, rituals and ceremonies, symbols and stories that make up the ‘persona’ of the school.” (Peterson, 2002) At its heart, school culture deals with the things that happen in our schools every day. Culture is that intangible ‘thing’ you feel when you walk into a school or a classroom. It is that ‘thing’ which tells you whether you are going into a school where staff and students are happy, or not so happy…

We are regularly reminded of our duty as educators to create a culture of high expectations for our students. A culture where success is normalized and celebrated, where the achievements of our students are shared, where every student can succeed, and barriers to learning are removed.

I am fortunate to have worked with some amazing practitioners and am fortunate to work with some amazing practitioners now. The kind of practitioners where this culture is the norm. These practices are happening in classrooms every day.


What I see much less often is the implementation of this culture school-wide. For many teachers, schools have started to become a repressive environment underpinned by aggressive government rhetoric, individualism, hostility and fear. This dangerous neglect of culture by school leaders and government alike is, I believe, a major contributory factor to the disillusionment currently felt by many teachers.

I’m sure many teachers are feeling deeply unhappy with their work because the school culture is one where they are not feeling valued and supported. When these basic support mechanisms go out the window, teachers start to resent the more time-consuming elements of the job.

A negative school culture infiltrates every element of the work educators do – it impacts on student behaviour, attendance, the attitude of students to learning, the motivation of staff, and the outcomes of our students – so we need to be aware both of culture and how we can change it.

It’s all about vision

I see lots of schools talk about ‘their values’. These are often a selection of inspirational words amalgamated to form a vision.

Resilience. Collaboration. Achieve. Believe. Succeed. Responsibility. Tolerance. Honesty. Integrity. Fairness. Learning.

(A quick search for school values enlightened me with some of the gems above.) Such words are lovely and look great on the side of the school building, but if the moment you step into the classroom, they are forgotten, then what’s the point? The most successful schools, the ones with the most successful and positive cultures, are those where these values are understood and articulated by every member of the school. The most effective way of delivering and embedding these values is to have a vision.

I have been encouraged, since my earliest days in the classroom, to have a vision. To have something which I am striving to achieve. The key to a vision is thinking about how you get there and what is the route to success. It is here that many fall down; if we are unable to clearly articulate what success looks like for our vision, we cannot expect people to buy into it.

Let’s study an example: Headteacher X has said that her vision for her school is:

“To be outstanding in every category of an Ofsted judgement within 5 years.”

Certainly an ambitious vision. My immediate question would be: How? How will you achieve this? What are the steps to success here?

This is what differentiates great school cultures from bad ones. I don’t doubt all schools have a headteacher, SLT, board of governors and body of staff who want success for their students. I do, however, have doubts about how many can get there. Have a vision, absolutely have a vision, BUT make sure you know what success looks like and how you can get there.

Take Headteacher X – to achieve her vision, she must empower her staff and students to succeed. This comes down to getting the basics right. Establishing and maintaining routines at every level of the school. It comes down to having high expectations and not reneging on these. It comes down to great professional development, where staff feel listened to and valued. It comes down to supporting middle leaders to great cultures in their departments and supporting individual teachers to teach.

We talk about removing the barriers to learning for our students; great school cultures are those where the barriers to outstanding teaching are removed. That, at the end of the day, is what we are employed to do!


Peterson, K. (2002) Positive or negative?, Journal of Staff Development, vol.23, no.3. pp.10-15.

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

The original post can be found here.


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