1 What is school culture and how does it impact on learning?

A school that is able to develop and maintain a positive shared culture knows what aspects of the culture are important in developing an effective learning environment; it consciously transmits these values to its students. Through collective awareness and action, culture can be used positively in order to enhance student learning and achievement, whether through small actions such as celebrating achievements in public events, or to more large-scale projects such as developing democratic processes for teachers, students and other stakeholders to contribute to curriculum reform.

While it appears to be constant , culture is a dynamic space that is influenced by laws, policies and changes of leadership. It therefore requires school leaders to be aware of what influences or changes aspects of the school culture, whether deliberately or not, and ensuring that the culture for learning and achievement are never put at risk. Research demonstrates that school leaders have a critical role in ensuring that the culture supports student achievement (MacNeil et al., 2009). But – as identified by Bulach (2001) – a leader must identify a school’s existing culture before attempting to change it.

A positive school culture can be defined broadly to include (Character Education Partnership, 2010):

  • social climate, including a safe and caring environment in which all students feel welcomed and valued, and have a sense of ownership of their school; this helps students in their moral development
  • intellectual climate, in which all students in every classroom are supported and challenged to do their very best and achieve work of quality; this includes a rich, rigorous and engaging curriculum, and a powerful pedagogy for teaching it
  • rules and policies that hold all school members accountable to high standards of learning and behaviour
  • traditions and routines built from shared values that honour and reinforce the school’s academic and social standards
  • structures for giving staff and students a voice in, and shared responsibility for, solving problems and making decisions that affect the school environment and their common life
  • ways of effectively working with parents to support students’ learning and character growth
  • norms for relationships and behaviours that create a professional culture of excellence and ethical practice.
Figure 2 Does your school have a positive school culture?

This definition covers the breadth of school life, both academic and social. However, every bullet point can be seen to have a direct impact on student learning, whether it is through developing a culture of excellence, or ensuring that students feel safe and listened to. The National Curriculum Framework (NCF) recognises this by stating that ‘schools have a major role to play in ensuring that children are socialised into a culture of self-reliance, resourcefulness, peace-oriented values and health’ (2005, p. 35).

The NCF mentions the conscious creation of a culture that has a long-term, developmental impact, stating that ‘children cannot wake up one morning and know how to participate in, preserve and enhance a democracy, especially if they have had no prior personal or even second-hand experience of it, nor any role models to learn from’. It specifically mentions the importance of:

  • a culture of reading
  • a culture of innovation, curiosity and practical experience
  • highlighting students’ identities as ‘learners’ and creating an environment that enhances the potential and interests of each student
  • messages that convey interpersonal relations, teacher attitudes, and norms and values that are part of the culture of the school.

More recently, Section 17 of the Right to Education Act 2009 (RtE) is of particular significance in the context of developing a positive school culture, because it states that ‘no child shall be subjected to physical punishment or mental harassment’. This calls for the school leader to focus on making the school an enabling and facilitative place for all school children, thereby providing a stress-free, child-friendly, learner-centred classroom environment, which requires redefining notions of discipline, punishment and student–teacher relationships. Further, the National Programme Design and Curriculum Framework (2014) highlights the need to empower and develop the capabilities of the school leader so that the transformed school proactively nurtures children and facilitates their all-round development.

Before understanding the role of school leaders in establishing, modelling and sharing their vision of a positive school culture, it is necessary to consider how different aspects of the culture are enacted in schools. Activity 1 will help you to consider your own understanding of school culture in relation to the Character Education Partnership (CEP) definition above.

Activity 1: Identifying examples of positive school culture

Look again at the seven bullet points listed above in the CEP definition of school culture. For each bullet point, write down in your Learning Diary two examples of how this might be reflected to your school.

For each example you have listed, justify how it would have a positive impact on student learning.

You will have naturally drawn on examples from your own experience, and will maybe have thought of examples of practice that you feel your school should aim to implement. You may notice that the examples you have thought of range from something as small as all teachers saying good morning to students as they enter classrooms, to something more substantial such as changing the classroom pedagogy .

The examples you thought of for Activity 1 are likely to be context-specific. Table 1 lists some generic ideas to help you think through the broad range of practical elements that might contribute to a school culture.

Table 1 Examples of school culture.

School culture definitionExamples
Social climate

Displaying students’ work

Greeting students as they arrive at each classroom

Providing emotional support to those students who need it

Creating a safe, comfortable learning environment, including temperature, sight lines to the teacher, comfortable seating, etc.

Staff are not prejudiced and do not stereotype any students

All students are included and valued, whatever their backgrounds and abilities

Intellectual climate

Celebrating success in small ways (such as verbal congratulations during a lesson) or in more grand events (such as certificates or prizes at an event with the local community)

Setting learning goals for students that reflect their personal needs and challenge them appropriately

Valuing a questioning, enquiry or investigative approach to learning

Rules and policies

Developing a behaviour policy jointly with students and displaying it in all classrooms

Discussing the behaviour policy in a school assembly or other platforms, in the presence of all the school management committee (SMC) members and teachers

Ensure all staff use the behaviour policy consistently

Traditions and routines

Have time in each assembly where successes from all aspects of school and students’ home life are celebrated

Staff and the SMC plan, organise and attend the whole range of school events (sporting, musical, prize giving, fundraising) to support their students and the school community

Giving staff and students a voice

Having time each week where staff or students can see the school leader without an appointment

Developing a school council or student focus group to discuss issues that they want to raise with the staff

Asking students to evaluate their experiences in subjects or courses, or over an academic year, to help make improvements

Working with parents

Setting up parent discussion groups to talk about issues that they want to raise with you or the staff

Involving the parents in the SMC, as mandated by the RtE Act 2009

Providing parents with regular updates on their child’s progress, but also the school curriculum and student successes

Norms for relationships and behaviours

Students saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ to teachers but also – importantly – teachers saying them to students

Valuing and respecting the home language of all students

Valuing different abilities at all levels and making adjustments to that disability does not exclude students

Respecting each other as learners (e.g. listening to each other, sharing resources politely and considerately)

Having considered the multi-faceted nature of what is meant by a school’s culture, it should be clear that there is very little that does not have an impact on how staff and students experience the school and affect the learning that takes place. As a school leader, this includes the way you lead and manage the staff, how you communicate your vision of the school’s development, and the relationships and interactions you have with staff, students and stakeholders.

What school leaders can learn in this unit

2 Styles of school leadership