This case study follows the change process in a school that, under the effective leadership of a new headteacher, was able to transform its culture from one of a once cruising school to a highly successful moving school with an enviable local and national reputation

School culture has become an important focus of recent research (Prosser, 1999; Dimmock and Walker, 2005; Wilson, 2005). In as much as it encapsulates the ‘values, norms, beliefs and customs’ of the school as an organization it is seen as crucial to the closely related issues of school effectiveness and school improvement.

The influential fivefold typology of schools by Stoll (1999), for instance, sees school culture as either being a ‘black hole’ or a ‘fertile garden’ for school improvement. At one extreme, moving schools are both effective and improving (beacons of excellence), whereas, at the other extreme, failing schools are both ineffective and on a downward spiral of decline and thus likely to be placed under special measures. Somewhere between the extremes are cruising schools, which are seen as effective in the eyes of the local community, largely on the basis of good academic results and past reputations, but showing little if any sign of improvement, and struggling schools, which are ineffective but nevertheless improving, often against the odds in difficult social circumstances. A fifth category — the strolling school — is neither effective nor ineffective but encounters difficulty in finding the momentum to bring about the necessary change for sustained improvement.

The case study that follows monitors the change process in a school that, under the effective leadership of a new headteacher, was able to transform its culture from one of a once cruising cum strolling school to a highly successful moving school with an enviable local and national reputation.

Effective change management

Planned change is crucial to the future success of any organization. Since the Education Reform Act (1988), schools have been subject to a series of reforms designed to intensify competition and drive up educational standards and improve parental choice. These include:

  • open enrolment
  • the publication of school league tables of exam results and value-added data
  • the publication of school inspection reports
  • competition for additional funding for such initiatives as acquiring specialist schools status.

As state schools are funded mainly according to the numbers of students they enroll, competition for more students has become a priority for most schools. This calls for systematic change and development to ensure continuous improvement through a combination of:

  • becoming more responsive to stakeholder needs, including those of pupils, parents and the local community
  • delivering on quality to convince the community that the school provides value for money
  • developing effective marketing strategies to ensure that the school’s achievements are adequately
    promoted and widely appreciated within the local community.

The exercise of foresight is crucial if the change process is to be effective. Planning should be proactive and based on judgements about the future. This is illustrated well by Handy (1994) in his description of patterns of organizational growth, stagnation and decline over time — the so-called sigmoid curve.

Foresight enables the organization to prepare for change and ‘leap’ to the second curve, thus avoiding stagnation and decline. Schools that are cruising or strolling lack such foresight: while for the moment they may be able to bask in the glories of past achievements and draw a measure of support on the basis of reputation, they face an uncertain future unless they can effect essential change.

The principles of effective change management have been well described by Fullan (1993), who identifies three essential processes. The first is the need to understand the school’s current culture, because without this understanding there will be little if any appreciation of what is worth preserving and what urgently needs changing to ensure growth and development. Hargreaves (1999) provides a very useful and practical framework for identifying school culture. The second vital element in the change process is the effective leadership of the headteacher, which serves as the initial inspiration and the driving catalyst for change and development. The third and final element is what is described as the process of reculturing — of gradually transforming the overall culture or ethos of the school.

Reculturing or cultural transformation requires both the establishment of appropriate structures and systems to support the change process, and the effective management and development of people within the organization (Kotter, 1996). Structures need to be carefully aligned to ensure success (for example, plans must be accurately costed to ensure that they will be adequately resourced), and staff must be appropriately trained and prepared for the challenges ahead. Some resistance will be inevitable, but transformational leadership is about clarity of focus and sharing a vision for the future, listening and responding to genuine concerns, and winning over hearts and minds in the pursuit of common goals and aspirations for the organization. The process takes time. It is far easier initially to transform structures and systems, which in turn will help modify behaviors. Only then will attitudes change and the culture of the school begin to be transformed (Hargreaves, 1999).

How these principles of change management and cultural transformation apply in practice is the focus of this school case study.

School context

Prince Henry’s Grammar School Specialist Language College is a mixed comprehensive taking pupils aged 11–18. It has 1,400 pupils of whom 290 are in the sixth form. The intake is drawn from both rural and urban communities since the school is situated in a town not far from a city in the north of England. The pupils are above average ability on entry with 11% identified as having special educational needs (SEN) of which 3% have statements. The school’s Ofsted report for 2005 stated: ‘Students are exceptionally ready to learn, showing excellent attitudes, behavior and personal development.’ The school achieved a 74% rate of students gaining five or more A*–C grades at GCSE in 2004 (63% in 2003). In 2005, the school was awarded a range of prestigious awards including a Global Schools Award and an International School Curriculum award.

The school has 35 students with statements of special educational need relating to learning, behavioral and medical problems, all of whom receive enhanced provision and individual attention. A total of 164 students who have individual education plans (IEPs) receive support from subject teachers, form tutors, heads of year and parents in reaching their targets. The inclusion team of 20 staff continues to receive professional development and all members of the team received child protection training and training in supporting dyslexia in 2005. In December 2003, the school was awarded a rare Chartermark award for its inclusive practice.

Cultural past

Prior to the changes initiated by the new headteacher, Prince Henry’s operated very much as a traditional ex-grammar school, both in terms of its organization and the nature of its curriculum. There was little communication between the school and the local community and consequently no sense of involvement on either side. This lack of engagement with the outside world was of little concern to the school and ran contrary to the impression given in the school’s documentation. The school was confident in its traditional qualities and sense of history, and the exam results gave no cause for concern. Outsiders who entered the school with new ideas or differing perceptions were perceived as a threat, both to the status of the school and the stable, relatively untroubled world of those individuals who worked there. There seemed little or no possibility of those outside of the immediate school community being able to exercise influence by way of change or improvement in the quality of schooling.

During the early 1990s, Prince Henry’s Grammar was a cruising school, being perceived as effective by the teachers and the local community because of its good exam results and enviable past reputation. However, it was not improving in value-added terms and apt to display such negative characteristics as complacency and contentment, conformity and nostalgia, blame and denial. By 2000, it was a strolling school being neither particularly effective nor ineffective and lacking the necessary drive to cope adequately with the necessary pace of change. The situation moved from bad to worse and the school sank into a state of depression. The head left with no replacement for three months, leaving a leadership vacuum, and the school’s application to become a specialist language college was rejected.

Problems to overcome

  • There had been a breakdown in communication between the school and the community. This had emanated largely from the attitudes of senior staff in the school and was reflected in how they dealt with the students, parents, community members.
  • The attitude of staff — that ‘we are doing an OK job’ — suggested a type of complacency that had imperceptibly crept into all aspects of schooling, and that needed dealing with.
  • The school had been run through a management structure based on a head, three deputies, a senior teacher and heads of department. However, it was apparent that incumbent senior staff did not possess enthusiasm for change. Complacency had reached right to the top, so there appeared little or no prospect of leadership for a change in school culture.

All change The school then experienced a change in leadership and subsequently a change in culture. When asked why he applied to the post the incoming Head, John Steel, gave an insight into his values and beliefs as a school leader and manager: I’ve always considered, wherever I’ve been, the curriculum to be the heart of a school and that a school should have to have choice. I knew the school had applied to become a specialist language college and the idea that somebody (Government) was going to pay to set up that choice was something I found attractive.

However, although acutely aware of the need to make changes and boost morale, John Steel spent the first term getting under the skin of the school, talking to people and slowly developing a view of what he needed to do for the school. Having gathered the information and gaining insight, no formal preconceived master plan was initiated but rather a broad strategy was evoked based on an understanding of the school’s problems.

Setting priorities

After the first term, which had given John Steel an opportunity to assess the current culture, his priority for change was very clear. His first objective was to make sure that Prince Henry’s Grammar School became a Specialist College — a simple and compelling target for change that would win support and energize the staff.

This was achieved very quickly (mainly due to input from new staff — see below).

It provided staff with a concrete sign that the new head was bringing something positive to the school and had a vision of its future. It could also act as a springboard for future action.

The second objective was to replace the in situ self-perpetuating, inward looking senior managers and establish a supportive senior management team (SMT). He did not invite confrontation, issue threats or sideline staff — that approach was contrary to his positive and inclusive leadership style. Nevertheless, he was able to take the opportunity to restructure the SMT when, within a year, one deputy left, a second deputy took early retirement and six months later the third deputy became a head elsewhere. The shape and role of the senior management team changed significantly for the better, as John Steel explains:

We set about restructuring the senior team and that was the key to the major changes. My view was I didn’t want me and a couple of deputies managing a school that size — I needed a much larger team. So I altered the team to one deputy who would be a head in waiting, and a raft of assistant headteachers who could each take a portfolio of work who could each drive along on a day-to-day basis. We now have a team of nine instead of a team of three.

This gave me a capacity to move on nine fronts simultaneously without overloading on a single individual — flattening the structure and spreading the load. In many schools, the deputy head has a job description that’s three times the length of your arm. There’s no chance that they are going to be able to carry out all of those tasks. Give a person a specific post and a specific brief and within 12 months it will get done. With nine people (assistant deputy heads) working simultaneously on a defined brief on an identified area, rapid progress gets made.

New appointments

The appointment process was a crucial factor in gaining allies who could support the head as change agents, and in both motivating and energizing other staff towards achieving a change in school culture. The first assistant deputy head to be appointed was the senior teacher — the only remaining member of the old senior management team. Interestingly, he had been largely sidelined under the old regime and had never been given the opportunity to demonstrate his leadership potential. The support from the senior teacher was something of a surprise for John Steel:

The guy had been there all his working life. The first thought is: this guy is part of the fabric, I have to move him. As soon as the deputies left, it became clear to me he had been a very suppressed person. Very quickly I took him on board as an ally. He got a new lease of life to him. You pick on people who can drive this thing with you.

The second appointment, the deputy head post, was pivotal because it had to be someone with a burning desire to make things happen and act as a driving force for change. The post was advertised but no appointment was made. It was re-advertised and three candidates were interviewed out of a field of more than 100 applicants. Of those three, only one was regarded as suitable, but he was an exceptional candidate, described as ‘stunning’, and therefore duly appointed. This was the head’s chief ally, without whom the head would certainly have been extremely lonely, might have lost heart and perhaps given in to the enormous pressures lying ahead.

John Steel filled the rest of the senior management team internally by searching the school for people who would support and promote his vision. Promoting internally was a political move aimed at promoting confidence within the school.

New achievements

With the new team mostly in place the school quickly moved to fulfilling its ambition of establishing a specialist language college — a mission that proved to be successful. The incumbent head of language was unable to rise to the demands of establishing a specialist language college and retired. At that point John Steel looked outside the school for new staff, avoiding standard practices and notions of equal opportunities; instead of recruiting he went headhunting:

We went out and found someone who could do the job for us and persuaded them to come to us.’

However, John Steel was keen to change only that which required change for the long-term good of the school. He was equally keen to conserve the best of the school’s old ex-grammar school traditions and at the same time appease a substantial proportion of older staff (more than 40% of the staff were due to retire within five years) who were poised to react negatively to a too rapid pace of change. Mindful of the immense value and experience of senior colleagues, John Steel achieved an optimal balance between innovation and the retention of those things that had made the school successful in the first place. So Prince Henry’s Grammar School’s long traditions and history were fully incorporated into a modern developmental context.

Golden rules

In a recent study, Pietersen (2002) has distilled the available information on the leadership of change into what he sees as ‘six golden rules for successful change leadership’.

Six golden rules

  • Create a simple, compelling statement of the case for change
  • Communicate constantly and honestly throughout the process
  • Maximize participation
  • If all else fails, remove those who resist
  • Generate short-term wins
  • Set a shining example

The experience of change leadership at Prince Henry’s Grammar School under John Steel amply illustrates all six of these golden rules at work, particularly through the initial focus on achieving specialist college status, which provided a concrete and compelling case for change and a short-term win, achievable within a relatively short period of time. Staff were won over through a combination of maximizing participation and the head responding genuinely to the concerns of older, more conservative staff.

Fortunately, the need to remove staff proved unnecessary, as those who were most likely to obstruct the gradual cultural transformation of the school either moved on to new posts elsewhere or chose to retire, thus opening up opportunities to restructure the senior management team.

Taking stock

Throughout the whole process of transformation, John Steel gained the confidence and respect of his staff through being a shining example to others: in his personal commitment and hard work and in his willingness to drive through important policy changes through negotiation, persuasion and building on consensus, not only with the staff but also the local community. Mistakes were made and John Steel is quick to recognize these, but the school is now one of the most successful specialist colleges in the country with an international ethos that could never have been dreamed of before. The school has also ‘squared the circle’ having achieved excellent exam results and a regional recognition as a place where inclusivity is practiced with great success, in sharp contrast to its elitist and rather exclusive image of old. Its unwritten motto could be ‘Proud of the past and prepared for the future’, reflecting the interplay of two competing themes — advancement and change on one hand and continuity and value in traditions on the other.

John Steel suggests that while there are no quick fixes, new heads seeking to transform and improve a school’s culture should consider three key points.

Head’s top tips

  • Do not display a public arrogance. You have to ensure you do not surround yourself with people that display that arrogance. That turns parents off. Whatever you do or say, your presence in meetings, your presence in structured events has to be affable, amiable, sensible, reasoned, but not arrogant. If the head is arrogant the school will not develop well.
  • You have got to mobilize the forces within the school. Moving into any new school, you will recognize people who will have been sidelined and downtrodden but have a lot to offer. So develop structures quickly to provide these people and all potential key players in the school with the opportunity to blossom.
  • Very quickly establish an effective leadership team and make sure you have very strong allies, and if it means you do not fill a post, then do not fill it. Wait until you get the right person and never accept second best because in the long run it will not work. You might be nine months without a key person but when you get the right person, very quickly that time will be made up. If you take the wrong person you may be saddled for 15 years or longer.


  • Dimmock, C. and Walker, A. (2005) Educational leadership: culture and diversity, Sage
  • Fullan, M. (1993) Change forces: probing the depths of educational reform, Falmer Press
  • Handy, C. (1994) The empty raincoat, Arrow Business Books
  • Hargreaves, D. (1999) ‘Helping practitioners explore their school’s culture’, in J. Prosser (ed), School culture, Paul Chapman
  • Kotter, J.P. (1996) Leading change, Harvard Business School Press
  • Pietersen, W. (2002) Reinventing strategy: using strategic learning to create and sustain breakthrough performance, John Wiley
  • Prosser, J. (ed) (1999) School culture, Paul Chapman
  • Stoll, L. (1999) ‘School culture: black hole or fertile garden for school improvement?’, in J. Prosser (ed), School culture, Paul Chapman
  • Wilson, M. (2005) ‘Leadership and organizational culture’, in C. Dimmock and A. Walker, Educational leadership: culture and diversity, Chapter 4, Sage

Michael Wilson, Lecturer in Education Management and Jon Prosser, Director International Education Management, School of Education, University of Leeds, with information provided by John Steel, Executive Headteacher, Prince Henry’s Grammar School Specialist Language College, Otley, Leeds.