School culture is a term that curriculum managers are having to pay more attention to in nearly all areas of their job. But how do you identify what culture prevails in your school, understand the implications this has for your curriculum leadership, and from there make changes for the better? Jon Prosser, Director of International Education Management at the University of Leeds, shows how.

When Ofsted inspectors walk into a school they usually have two issues uppermost in their mind. They will be thinking ‘value for money’ and ‘quality of teaching and learning’, but unquestionably the issue of ‘school culture’ will emerge during conversations with the senior management team (SMT).

While school culture is an enigmatic concept applied with wilful lack of precision by many in education, it is an issue that is of great importance to school leaders and middle managers. 

Although the term ‘school culture’ was used as early as 1932, it only gained prominence in the 1980s. It is impossible for experienced teachers to reflect on the last two decades of Government reform without reminiscing about the significant changes in school culture that have taken place during that period. The DfES signalled its intention to control schooling by stating that subject specialist schools will change school ethos. School culture is ubiquitous in writings on school effectiveness and school improvement and it is impossible to conceive of fundamental changes in schooling without reflecting on changes to a school’s culture. Undoubtedly, it is a term that is here to stay and one that is gaining in significance. But what is school culture, how can it be identified and what implications does it have for school leadership?

What is school culture? Metaphors such as ‘climate’, ‘ethos’, ‘tone’, ‘atmosphere’, and ‘character’ have been used to suggest the special nature of institutions and organisations each with their own set of meanings and advocates. School ‘culture’, something akin to societal culture, is yet another metaphor, but one that has gained wider acceptance perhaps because it is less obscure than other metaphors.

There are other ways of thinking about the uniqueness of a school. Analogies are often used such as ‘personality is to the individual what culture is to the school’, subtle zen-like phrases such as ‘how schools work when no-one is looking’, or cryptic expressions such as ‘it’s the “social glue” that holds schools together’. These are common expressions, but ones that are not particularly useful for curriculum leaders.

At the heart of all school cultures are the values, norms, beliefs and customs that an individual holds in common with members of the school – a unifying theme that provides meaning, direction, and mobilisation. Emphasis is given to the influence of homogeneous and stable groups within the school who, it is assumed, are pivotal in determining strong or weak cultures and the ‘uniqueness’ of that school. Rarely, if ever, is there a single norm or vision in a school, but rather its resultant culture is a combination of pressure groups or sub-cultures, such as pupil culture and teacher culture.

Identifying school culture

There are numerous checklists, ticklists and questionnaires available that have been designed as a way to identify a school’s culture. But they are inadequate since they fail to reflect the inherent complexity in the concept. A pragmatic starting point for assessing a school’s culture is to make a list of everyday taken-for-granted activities of staff and pupils under three broad overlapping categories.

Working out the ‘wider’ and ‘generic’ culture of schools is not particularly difficult or important since teachers have no control over them. They are forces that simply shape our everyday working lives and being aware of them is sufficient. However, the ‘unique culture’ is important since individual schools create it and can change it. Unfortunately, it is also the most difficult one to identify.

What is the unique culture of your school? Accomplishing high pupil achievement requires control by and over teachers so that they concentrate on teaching and learning. At the same time, schools need to maintain social relationships so that they are satisfying, supportive and sociable places to be. To solve the complex problem of educating students, schools have to maintain pressure to keep teachers on task. So social controls are applied to prevent distraction from this core task of educating pupils – this is called the social control function of unique school culture. Simultaneously, schools seek to maintain teachers’ social harmony, which is easily disturbed by pressure to keep on task – this is called the social cohesion function of unique culture. Incompetent handling of either task achievement or harmonious social relationships will disrupt the school and its effectiveness. Every school has to find some combination and balance between social control and social cohesion.

From this basic model Hargreaves (1999) developed a typology of four idealised school cultures, see the box on page 3, which he called:

  • ‘hothouse’– high in control and cohesion
  • ‘formal’ – high in control, low in cohesion
  • welfarist – low in social control, high in social cohesion
  • survivalist – low in social control and social cohesion.

Using Hargreaves’ four idealised schools, it is possible, during a staff development day, to work out a school’s unique culture. The aim is to generate data on teachers’ perceptions of their school’s unique culture using a board game. The board is in the form of an 8 x 8 grid with one of the four colours at each corner. Players (the staff) are given a set of four cards, one of each with a different colour matching Hargreaves’ idealised secondary schools: hothouse – green; formal – pink; welfarist – yellow; survivalist – blue. They are given their own personal copy of the grid and asked to mark on one square (without consultation or prior knowledge about the significance of the colours) where the school’s unique culture is located.

Players can also be asked for further information, for example, which way is the unique culture heading (by an arrow) or what is their ideal unique culture for them. The corners are extreme positions and the colours act as magnets either attracting or repelling, helping players to fix the positions. Most will see their school’s unique culture as a combination of two or three colours. The group of players then collate their individual responses on a group sheet and discuss the results.

Often the discussion itself is invaluable, especially if the session leader is on hand to probe; for example, ‘Can you give an example of that…’ (consider recording this discussion since this will provide important additional data that you can interpret later). In this way, it is possible to arrive at a mastersheet by combining data from the whole staff. Often a strong consensus is established. For example, the diagram in the box at the bottom of page 4 shows a school whose unique culture is perceived as mostly formal (pink) with elements of hothouse (green), whose staff would prefer a culture of mostly hothouse (green) with elements of welfarist (yellow). The game can be played by different groups, such as senior leaders, and curriculum groupings, and the results then compared. The contrast can be surprising, even startling, but the data should be handled with sensitivity and diplomacy.

Implications for leadership
The four most important tasks for middle and senior managers with regards to school culture are a:

  • basic understanding of its meaning and significance
  • diagnostic task – identifying a school’s unique culture
  • directional task – deciding which way a school’s unique culture should move
  • managerial task – after deciding where the unique culture is going, it is necessary to arrange and implement a plan to get it there.

Once you have identified the unique culture of your school, your leadership team needs a time of brainstorming, thought-provoking questioning, consultation and above all a stiff dose of pragmatism. This reflective period enables the SMT to confront important issues, which, if engaged in and followed, will act as a ‘springboard’ for significant and focused action. Any decision to modify a school’s culture should be considered in light of the old adage ‘the only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture’, which reflects not only its significance but also the difficulty of the task at hand. From the outset, question your own and other leaders’ assumptions about the nature of school culture – see the box below right.

Before embarking on any attempt to change culture, you need to make a leap in faith and make the assumption that school culture is:

  • plastic and manipulable and can be shaped by the leaders
  • a unifying force that will enable the school to achieve its primary goals
  • linked to school effectiveness and performance via employee motivation.

Without the belief that the unique culture is good for teaching and learning, that it can be changed and aids teachers’ morale, no curriculum leader will initiate any change.

The statement, ‘Do not assume that “strong” cultures are better than “weak” cultures’ needs an explanation. A strong culture has a positive impact on school performance, particularly if the school adapts to the environment and interacts proactively with it. Contemporary schooling necessitates proactive reaction to ongoing and multiple changes stemming from, for example, Government initiatives. Where a culture is strong but inflexible, for instance a headteacher who has been in post for 20 years leading to a robust but rigid culture, the capacity to absorb change will be partial and limited. The situation a school finds itself in is important and it is within the bounds of possibility that School A in a dire situation excels despite a weak unique culture and scant flexibility, or that School B may perform poorly despite its strong unique culture or dynamism and flexibility. After all, a school head may well be brilliant in one school yet lack lustre in another and this can be put down to context or ‘situation’.

Changing a school’s unique culture A school’s unique culture is shaped by its history, key people in its past such as leaders who are said to be culture founders, and contemporary context. Unsurprisingly, since the unique culture is based on fundamental assumptions and beliefs shared by staff and pupils that operate unconsciously, the task of changing culture is extremely difficult. The task of reculturation – changing one set of beliefs for another – is daunting (changing our own beliefs would require a major shift in itself). One possibility is not to try to change beliefs in an attempt to change everyday practice, but to change everyday practice, which will lead to a change in beliefs. The strategy to achieve successful reculturation will depend on a clear vision of the new culture and an understanding of how to manage change.

David Hargreaves’ game identifies the unique school culture, but four further considerations will help you to make the reculturation process a positive one. These are:

  • What is the teaching culture of the school?
  • Where is the culture movement-wise?
  • What cultural phase is the school in?
  • How will you manage the change process?

Teaching culture Andy Hargreaves (1994) highlights four existing teaching cultures – see the box right. It is a good idea to reflect on what fellow teachers actually do rather than what the school prospectus claims they do. For example, individualism means teachers will tend to work mostly in isolation and treat their classrooms as a black box where no-one enters. Collaboration is informal and semi-structured with no strict etiquette and tends to be strongly sociable. Contrived schools have many, maybe too many, formal meetings where routine meetings are the norm. Teachers who practise Balkanisation are more political in their affiliation and often groups come together for mutual support and ‘sniping’ at other schools or departments within their own school is common practice. Given that good teaching should be a core value of any school, it is important to ensure that teachers are allowed the flexibility to adopt their own style of teaching, yet there also exists throughout the staff a common commitment to good practice, high standards and emphasis is placed on a collaborative teaching culture.

Movement of culture An insight into the movement aspect of school culture can be achieved by thinking crudely about whether your school is ‘moving’ or ‘stuck’. A moving school is proactive, feeling free to focus on its priorities whereas the stuck school is reactive and feels restricted by outside demands. Stoll’s (1999) typology is recognisable to most teachers. Given that rapid change in education is the norm, it is important that schools are not standing still since this would mean they are moving backward – standing still is no longer an option. Schools are either getting better or they are getting worse. If we think of schools as operating on two dimensions, effectiveness-ineffectiveness and improving-declining, a range of school cultures are possible and these can be applied to the whole school or departments within a school. In most schools, several and possibly a full range of movement-cultures from ‘moving’ to ‘sinking’ are present and teachers know where their own department falls. It is imperative that you target for cultural change the weak sub-cultures (departments) in a school, particularly those that are sinking or struggling.

Cultural phase The age or phase of cultural development of a school can impact on how cultural change should be managed. The importance of shared assumptions in the emotional life of a school or academic department will vary according to the stage at which the staff find themselves, which, in turn, will determine whether the school’s culture can be changed or only enhanced at any given stage. The role of leadership is very different at different stages of group development.

Once a department or school has evolved a mature culture because it has a long and rich history, that culture creates the patterns of perception, thought, and feeling of every new generation in the school and, so, also causes the school to be predisposed to certain types of leadership. In that sense the mature department, through its culture, also creates its own leaders. Breaking the tyranny of a mature school culture is the hardest thing. In the mature school – if it has developed a strong unifying culture – culture now defines what is to be thought of as ‘leadership’, and how authority and power are to be allocated and managed. There is a paradox here: leaders create cultures, but cultures, in turn, create their next generation of leaders. If heads of department (HoDs) find themselves in a school where the headteacher has been in post for 30 years and manages the school in the same way as his or her predecessor, they have their work cut out to change the unique culture.

However, a strong body of HoDs working collaboratively can work around a stilted head to create something new.

At the other end of the continuum, where a school’s culture is an immature culture, the path to further change in culture is eased. At this stage, the leader needs both vision and the ability to articulate it and enforce it. The culture creation leader needs persistence and patience. During these stages, leaders often absorb and contain the anxiety that is unleashed when things do not work as they should. The leader may not have the answer, but he or she must provide temporary stability and emotional reassurance while the answer is been worked out.

Managing cultural change In managing the change process, leaders should take account of ‘teaching culture’, ‘cultural movement’, and ‘cultural phase’ issues, discussed above. The rational model of change management following six key stages – goal-setting, policymaking, planning, preparation, implementing, evaluating – works for some managers. Others have successfully adopted a five-strand approach:

  • establishing a vision
  • having an extended view of leadership
  • matching the programme to the context
  • focusing on specific student outcomes
  • embracing a multi-level approach.

However, when attempting to change a school’s unique culture there are key points you should consider. Having a vision and communicating it gives staff a sense of sharing goals since they know where they are going. It also provides a sense of collegiality. It helps if you can engender a belief that risk-taking is OK (this is best achieved by key people in a school showing this, by clearly stating that they have taken risks and made mistakes but that it is OK to do so) and that support is at hand if things become difficult.

Since teamwork is needed, try to encompass all contributions and the sense that ‘everyone has something to offer’. Staff may feel vulnerable to deep-seated change and need to feel that transparency is omnipresent and that differences can be discussed. Fun, humour, enjoyment and a willingness to celebrate successes are important antidotes to multi-faceted problems that go with change.

Jon Prosser, Director International Education Management, School of Education, University of Leeds

Categorising culture

  • School culture does not exist in a vacuum and national and local cultures are impregnated into and are part of all educational institutions. Culture used in this way reflects national or regional elements including ethnic, professional, historical and political influences. This ‘wider culture’ reflects the difference between, for example, a Chinese school in Canton and an English school in Bradford.
  • Hospitals, prisons and banks are easily recognised and separated by their differing institutional cultures. Likewise schools are easily identified (it is almost impossible to walk past a school and not know that it is a school). This ‘generic culture’ of schools is reflected in their similarities in terms of norms, rituals and traditions, and actions, and it is this shared vision that underpins culture. There are subtle variations in generic culture that reflect whether a school is junior, secondary, private or state. Government education policy is often aimed at changing schools’ generic culture.
  • Because teachers and pupils possess a degree of freedom of choice and the capacity to interpret and reinterpret the ‘generic culture’ of schools, they create their own ‘unique culture’. Predominant values in a school provide insiders with distinctive inhouse rules for ‘getting on and getting by’, which are the basis of a school’s ‘unique culture’. The difference between ‘generic’ and ‘unique’ culture is recognised and reflected in teacher folklore — ‘all schools are the same but different’.

Four idealised schools

Ours is a really friendly school and we believe in people getting on, whether it’s staff with staff, teachers with students or the kids among themselves. Nobody gives of their best unless they feel valued and wanted — so that’s where our educational philosophy begins. Social development is as important as academic development and what doesn’t get noticed in exams we hope gets reflected in our personal, social and health education (PSHE) work and in students’ records of achievement. Of course, some students have lots of problems at home and although we obviously can’t solve all of those, we can’t just ignore them either. It’s a caring school and the staff are cared about as well as the students. (on yellow card)

It’s no soft option being a teacher here. It’s OK if you’re a strong sort of person with lots of self-confidence. If you’re not, well it can be hard controlling the students and getting any work out of some classes. I can’t say I’m really happy about the direction the school’s taking and morale in the staffroom isn’t what it might be. I get by, and generally keep myself to myself. After all, teaching’s just a job and you have to have your own private life as well. I don’t think the place gets the best out of me, and to be honest if the school were inspected tomorrow and they saw us as we really are, we’d get a bad report. The trouble is I don’t really think there’s much chance of any major improvement for teachers or students without a very radical shake-up. (on blue card)

Our philosophy is to educate the whole person, not just the bits that fit schools. Of course, we accept that exams matter and there’s quite a bit of pressure on students to give of their best. But we also believe that the social and emotional side of young people needs to be developed too, and every teacher is involved in pastoral care as well as the academic side of teaching. You could describe relationships as close — we’re quite a close staff and that spills over to the students too. Team spirit is part of the ethos and there’s not much room for loners. You have to give one hundred per cent here: teaching is emotionally as well as intellectually draining, so we all need the holidays to recharge ourselves for the next term. (on green card)

We regard ourselves as a well-disciplined sort of school, one that sets store on traditional values. The head runs the place as something of a ‘tight ship’ with high expectations of us teachers. There’s a strong emphasis on student learning and everybody’s very proud when we do. We also like to do well in games and athletics, which is another important aspect of achievement. We expect students to be fairly independent and not to be mollycoddled. We’re clear what the school stands for and what we’re about, so we are naturally rather suspicious of trendy ideas, and put more trust in what’s been shown to work best through past experience. (on pink card)

Misconceptions to avoid

  • Do not assume that culture can be manipulated like other matters under your control
  • Do not assume that there is a ‘correct’ or ‘better’ school culture
  • Do not assume that ‘strong’ cultures are better than ‘weak’ cultures
  • Do not assume that focusing on how people relate to each other in the school you can label that aspect ‘the culture’ — this can be a dangerous trap because it draws attention away from shared basic assumptions about the aim of education, which is to teach pupils
  • Do not assume that culture can be manipulated like other matters under the control of managers
  • Culture controls the manager more than the manager controls culture, through the habitual filters that prejudice major perceptions

Teaching cultures

  • Individualism — these are schools that are bounded in metaphors of classrooms as egg-crates or castles, where autonomy, isolation and insulation prevail, and blame and support are avoided.
  • Collaboration — teachers choose, spontaneously and voluntarily, to work together, without an external control agenda. Forms vary from ‘comfortable’ activities, such as sharing ideas and materials, to more rigorous forms, including mutual observation and focused reflective enquiry.
  • Contrived collegiality — where teachers’ collaborative working relationships are compulsorily imposed, with fixed times and places set for collaboration, for example planning meetings during their preparation time.
  • Balkanisation — where teachers are neither isolated nor work as a whole school. Smaller collaborative groups form, for example within secondary school departments, between infant and junior teachers, and class teachers and resource support teachers.

(Based on Hargreaves, 1994)