3 Identifying and analysing the culture in your school

Schools need a shared positive culture. To assess whether the culture of your school is supporting student learning, you will first need to understand and define your school’s culture together with the other stakeholders. This shared exploration will help the entire school to identify and celebrate what is going well and identify areas for improvement.

During the exploration you may discover whether the outcomes that students achieve in school are being accomplished with support from the school culture or in spite of the school culture. Your exploration should provide the insights that you need to change the culture in the school so that it aligns with both your understanding of a good school and your goals, thereby increasing your effectiveness.

Planning how you and the other stakeholders would develop an understanding of the prevailing culture in the school is critical, as it will work towards the goal of making the culture explicit and measurable in terms of its desirability. At all times, you will need to ensure that a long term, developmental perspective is maintained when looking at the impact of school culture. Impact is seen over time, sometimes over years.

Finding out about the culture of your school involves having genuine, honest and exploratory conversations with staff, students and stakeholders. This may be a different type of conversation (and, ultimately, a different type of relationship) than you are currently used to having. If you want to create an environment in which you can work collaboratively with staff to explore the school’s culture, you will need to focus on the following:

  • The quality of the listening: When gathering evidence, remember to remain impassive but interested. Facial expressions and verbal reactions can inhibit others from being honest.
  • Creating a safe environment in which your staff can share what they truly think: Keep the goal clear – understanding the school’s culture, making sure that it is positive and supports the school to achieve its goals and vision.
  • Restrain your instinct to defend the practices in the school: Ask for examples and evidence of statements of both praise and disapproval. Even unsubstantiated opinions collected are useful and can be addressed in meetings, assemblies and training programmes.

Activity 4: Gathering evidence of the current school culture

Identify some of your staff who might be interested in working with you on this aspect of your school’s development. Identify a range of opportunities to gather evidence and reflect on the school’s culture. This might include:

  • standing with you at the school gate and watch the manner in which the staff and students enter the school
  • walking together around the school, looking at how the building is decorated and maintained
  • watching how an assembly is conducted
  • following some students as they go into their classrooms and observing how they settle in
  • noticing how teachers and students greet each other
  • reviewing how the school rules are enacted
  • watching teachers start the first class for the day
  • asking a range of staff, students and parents for their views on the school’s culture
  • reflecting with your staff on the evidence collected.

After spending some time collecting evidence, find a quiet space for reflection with your staff members. Listen to and talk with them about what you have all discovered concerning the school culture and its potential impact on student learning. Your conversation could be structured around the characteristics of a school culture (Character Education Partnership, 2010) that were referred to previously:

  • social climate
  • intellectual climate
  • rules and policies
  • traditions and routines
  • giving staff and students a voice
  • ways of effectively working with parents
  • norms for relationships and behaviours.

Write your own reflections on this process in your Learning Diary.

The purpose of gathering evidence is to understand the context of your school and use the information to build a culture in which all your students value learning. Involving others in the information gathering enables you to identify how the school’s culture is perceived by others, empower others to take responsibility for developing an effective learning culture and leads to a more inclusive and sustainable culture. It is necessary to set the stage for the planning process to follow. Your teachers will have experienced your keenness to proceed by now and they are more likely to be willing to plan the next steps with you.

Activity 5: Working with the team to identify areas for team improvement

Once the team of staff members have agreed to gather information on the culture of the school, ask them to start by making their own beliefs explicit. Set up a workshop in your office or in an available room after school, if your teachers agree to stay after school hours.

Prepare in advance for the workshop by creating a set of ten strips of paper for each teacher in your team. On each set of ten strips, write norms for group functioning for schools that have a mission for improving themselves. These are based on research by Stoll and Fink (1996):

  • ‘We all know our vision and our goals.’
  • ‘We are all responsible if we fail or win.’
  • ‘We all work together.’
  • ‘We are all getting better at what we do.’
  • ‘We are all learning and can learn.’
  • ‘We all try new ways.’
  • ‘We all find help when we get stuck.’
  • ‘We all feel we are important.’
  • ‘We talk about our differences with each other.’
  • ‘We all enjoy our work.’

Hand out the set of strips to the teachers and ask them to divide them independently into two categories in terms of the current school status: ‘Achieved’ and ‘Getting there’. Do the exercise yourself at the same time as your team. Then stick all of the ‘Achieved’ strips onto a piece of chart paper and all of the ‘Getting there’ strips on another. Count how many statements you get for each list. Look for statements that appear in both lists, therefore signalling a disagreement about the current situation. Discuss your findings as a group.

Completing this activity will have enabled you to identify where the team shares understanding about the school’s current culture and where there is disagreement or ambiguity. You may have found that some statements seemed to apply to certain parts of the school, but not all, or that some statements were firmly in the ‘Getting there’ area. This information is an important starting point for establishing priority areas for your attention. However, establishing whether the views of the team reflect wider opinion is necessary.

Figure 4 Work with your team to identify areas for improvement.

Schools that want to assess the movement toward achieving their vision build a climate of providing feedback. If you have noted that your school is a good place for teachers to improve their teaching, this is a good time to find out if the rest of your teachers would say the same thing. It would also be important to discover whether your students would describe it as a place that they like to attend because they learn what they need to know and feel confident, and whether parents would agree with the manner in which their children are learning.

The next activity will help you understand the views of a range of stakeholders.

Activity 6: Engaging with stakeholders

Make a plan with your team on how you will interview a variety of stakeholders on the culture of the school. This will mainly involve students, staff and parents, but it will be important to ask local businesses, community leaders, religious leaders, etc. The Right to Education Act 2009 (RtE) mandates that ‘the school management committee shall perform the following functions, namely:

  • monitor the working of the school
  • prepare and recommend a school development plan
  • monitor the utilisation of the grants received from the appropriate government or local authority, or any other source.

Some suggestions on the questions that might be asked are given below, although you may have specific questions that you want to ask based on the findings of your staff workshop. You may also find that you need to develop a slightly different range of questions to ask stakeholders who are not involved in the everyday activities of the school. For each area of questioning you should ask about the current culture and what they feel should be the desired culture.

  • The regular functioning of the school and how they would like to see it function: How does the timetable link with the school’s vision? What would make an ideal timetable? What activities are given importance and which ones are always put aside when there is a time crunch? What should be done in the same circumstances? Who do students speak to about their needs and interests? Who should be designated for this? Do the staff know who they can turn to if they require resources? If they require information? Who should be designated for this?
  • Qualities of the staff and the students and the qualities that they would like to see: Which people are seen as assets to the school? Are some qualities being overlooked? What are students allowed to do? What are they not allowed to do? What should they be allowed to do? What about staff – what are they allowed or not allowed to do? What should they be allowed to do? Who are the key people in the school? What values do they represent?
  • A day in the life of each stakeholder and how each would like the day to be: What does a day in the life of a leader look like? What does an average day in the life of a teacher or student look like? What are the sorts of reasons for which students are celebrated? What are the sorts of reasons for which students are disciplined? How are students that achieve supported? How should they be supported? How are students that struggle supported? How should they be supported?
  • Achievements and what achievements they aspire to: What are you most proud of about the school? What would make you even more proud if the school achieved it? What is the one thing you would like to change the most? Has the school made any radical departures from its past practices? Have they been radical enough? Is there a history of innovation? Does the teaching and learning help students feel confident about their abilities? What changes in the teaching and learning would help students feel greater confidence in their abilities?
  • Approach to challenges and what should be the approach: What is the process the school follows to find out what is going right and what is not good enough? Is there a different process that can be followed? Who is in charge of the process and who participates in it? When there is an unfavourable incident, what does the school do about it? Should the school be doing something different? What sort of issues has the school dealt with during its existence? How did the SMC deal with them? Is there a pattern in their solving problems? Does it still apply? What is the change now? Is there a better way to solve problems?

Collate the answers with your team by identifying how aspects of the school culture that emerges from these conversations supports or prevents student progress and achievement.

A cohesive organisation is one in which all stakeholders view the culture similarly and are aligned with the goals of the organisation. How far is your SMC on board with the direction in which you want to lead your school? Was this your experience when listening to the staff, students and parents? Their responses would have told you which of the aspects of the school’s culture are agreed. It would also tell you which ones the stakeholders view differently and why. These areas of difference are the areas you would want to improve on.

The next section, discusses how you can develop a positive shared culture that takes the school towards the stated vision in a conscious manner.

2 Styles of school leadership

4 Developing a positive shared culture