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Opinion2nd April 2019

Cracking the culture: helping staff and pupils become champions

Helena Moore

Helena Moore is the Associate Dean of Learning Design at Ambition Institute, a new graduate school which combines the mission focus of a charity, the academic rigour of a traditional university, and the essential classroom connection of a teaching school.

‘The culture precedes positive results. It doesn’t get tacked on as an afterthought on your way to the victory stand. Champions behave like champions before they’re champions.’

This quotation from American football coach Bill Walsh highlights the importance of organisational culture and its link with success. School leaders, in their pursuit of success for staff and pupils, should surely therefore consider their organisational culture as part of their improvement journey.

But is culture easy to crack?

There is a large body of research that supports the importance of school culture, but what is culture? And does culture, as the quotation above suggests, actually precede the positive impact? Or does positive culture succeed positive results as a product of that success?

In this blog we’ll discuss these questions, look at some of the answers offered by research and explore how drawing on this evidence could help school leaders to enable their staff and pupils to the become champions.

Culture: “the way things are done here” (Rees, 2018, p.67)

Rees (2018) likens the professional culture of a school to its soil: either it will facilitate growth and aid teachers and pupils to flourish, or roots will not be established, there will be no lasting growth and each term will feel like you’re starting all over again.

Culture declares the climate of a school – how stakeholders (pupils, parents, teachers, leaders and governors) view and interpret the school and their work there (Schein, 1990). In return, school climate acts as a snapshot of school culture (Schoen and Teddlie, 2008); it reveals perceptions and demonstrates to school leaders the state of the culture in their school.

If you want to know about the culture of a school, talk to those who work and learn there.

What do we know about school culture?

“Culture is a notoriously difficult term to define” (Lebron, 2013, p.126).

Although there are accepted understandings of what is meant by culture, we’re a long way from a shared definition. In fact, anthropologists seeking to find one have compiled 164 different definitions of culture (Lebron, 2013) – something which starts to demonstrate its complexity.

Educational research into culture (e.g. Berkowitz et al., 2017; Berkowitz et al., 2016; Allen and Sims, 2018) shows a correlation between positive school culture and the positive outcomes discussed below, but we don’t know for certain whether school culture is actually the cause of these positive outcomes.

[For a clear summary of the difference between correlation and causation read Alex Quigley’s post Causation and Correlation in Education.]

Outcomes related to a positive school culture

Effective, sustained and successful implementation and change

As the evidence base for education grows and becomes more accessible and applicable for teachers and school leaders, it’s vital that evidence-informed improvements are implemented effectively in order to bring about the positive changes intended.

The EEF’s recent report ‘Putting Evidence to work: A school’s guide to implementation’ (Sharples et al., 2019) discusses how school leaders can create an ‘implementation-friendly’ school climate that is ‘conducive to change’. Without such a climate and culture, the implementation of improvements will fall flat.

Teacher competence, connectedness and retention

A key part of school improvement is making teachers better. School cultures can facilitate teacher learning; Kraft and Papay (2014) found a relationship between a supportive professional environment and teacher improvement over time.

With teachers improving, an impact will likely be seen on pupil outcomes. Teacher competence is also found to increase in a culture where teachers feel connected to peers and have shared goals (Aldridge and Fraser, 2015).

In turn, teacher competence and connectedness are linked to retention (Allen and Sims, 2018) and so a link between school culture, teacher connectedness and competence, and teacher retention can be made.

High pupil outcomes

Studies have found that schools in which the climate is rated highly also have higher pupil attainment (Berkowitz et al., 2017; Brand et al., 2008). As discussed, most studies show a correlation between the two factors, rather than a causal relationship.

Notably, however, a small number of studies do show causal relationships between aspects of school climate and pupil outcomes – namely student-parent-teacher connectedness (Catalano et al., 2004), and well managed and caring learning environments (Rimm-Kaufman et al., 2007).

Greater impact on schools and pupils in disadvantaged areas

Berkowitz et al. (2016) claim there is a positive correlation between positive school climates, particularly strong disciplinary climates, and the attainment of disadvantaged pupils.

Additionally, the OECD cites “a supportive school climate and environment for learning” as a focused strategy for supporting disadvantaged schools (Jerrim et al., 2018), identifying the importance of retaining high-quality staff in tackling underachievement in disadvantaged schools. This is something which we know is itself related to the school climate.

If positive school climates correlate with the improved results above, is it of value for school leaders to know what makes a positive school culture and climate?

There is no universally accepted ‘recipe’ for a positive school culture. Recent UK research (Baars et al., 2018) identified the characteristics of school culture that were found to be prevalent across high-performing schools:

A key finding was the importance of the explicit link between school culture and school practice. This raises the question: is it in fact the changes in practice that, in leading to the positive outcomes, are the cause of positive cultures?

Chicken and egg – which comes first? How do we crack the culture?

Although schools can showcase their own positive cultures, the important question still stands – what comes first?

Should leaders invest in working on their culture and expect that, in time, they will see the positive outcomes we’ve discussed? Is this a safe assumption? As we know, there is currently limited causal evidence (Catalano et al., 2004; Rimm-Kaufman et al., 2007) showing that culture precedes success.

Instead, we must consider whether the tangible changes in schools – whether in the corridor, the classroom, the playground or the staffroom – are what lead to the successes and the positive culture that follows.

It is vital is that, as leaders, it’s not assumed that culture will just happen; a positive culture won’t just appear somehow. The question just stands how to make it happen.

As leaders, what have you done that has made the difference in your schools? What have you focused on to achieve a positive culture?

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This post was originally featured on the Ambition Institute website. Please visit the site for the article references.