If you’re looking for a comprehensive list of the key aspects of developing and improving school culture, welcome. What follows is insight built up over decades of experience, distilled, and presented as an easy-to-follow checklist. As a school improvement partner, I have worked closely with many of school leaders to help identify and implement all the elements listed below. And now I’d like to share them with you.
So, here’s almost everything you need to know about school improvement and school culture.
Who’s in Charge?
When I support a school, I work very closely with school leaders to identify areas for improvement and development across their provision.
My first port of call, just like an Ofsted inspector (see What to Expect From an Inspection), is data collection from publicly available records. Before I step into a school to work on school improvement systems I like to find out as much as I can about a school and go in prepared.
Once inside the school gates, I spend a great deal of time talking to school leaders to get a better understanding of the school and how things work.
I like to know:
who in the school decided to get school improvement support?
who is determined to do everything they can to improve the school?
who believes they do not need support and wonders why I am there?
who will do the bare minimum and will need to be prompted?
who I should keep in the loop to make sure things move along smoothly?
who to talk to first when I have a problem, in order to avoid offending others?
All these many little pieces of information give me a better picture of how things really work at a school.
If I didn’t spend time searching for this information, it would make my work very difficult.
This sort of information tells me about a school’s “personality”. What makes it unique. What makes it tick.
In short, how school culture is manifested.
A school’s culture is something that is said to be one of the least tangible aspects of a school. Yet, it happens to have a significant impact on school improvement.
Here’s an example.
Post-Inspection Action Plans
One of the many jobs I do is supporting school leaders to compile post-inspection action plans.
After reading their inspection report and identifying what needs to improve, I spend a significant amount of time talking to school leaders to find out the finer details about the inspection: what happened during the inspection to lead to the judgments made by inspectors?
In addition to all this information, I then use a combination of relevant research and my own knowledge and experience to compile a list of possible actions to address those issue, before returning to discuss my findings with school leaders.
For each proposed action I ask many questions. Here are just a few of the more common or generic ones, to give you an idea:
What do you think about this action?
Is it practical within your school’s context?
If we set this action, do you see it happening?
Is there something you would do differently?
Who do you think should do it?
Do they have the knowledge, experience and skills to do it?
Will they be willing to do it?
Do they have enough time to do it given their current workload?
Can they be relied upon to do it?
Do you think it can be done in two weeks, for example?
I make it very clear that it doesn’t matter how brilliant an action plan seems – it’s all about the implementation.
The aim of this process is to make sure that the action plan can be implemented within the school’s existing culture. If an action plan does not fit into a school’s culture, it won’t get done.
School Culture Drives School Improvement
Now let’s focus on school improvement in general. More specifically, building systems that drive school improvement.
If a school’s cultural norms are conducive to improvement, then my job is fairly easy.
It means the school’s shared values and beliefs, their processes, and their day-to-day behaviours make them open and more receptive to finding ways of doing things better.
If, however, a school’s culture is not conducive to improvement, it doesn’t matter how robust the school improvement systems I put in place are, they simply will not work.
In such cases, a change in culture is needed before any improvement efforts can have a chance of success.
Changing the way things work, changing school culture, is about shifting mindsets.
It takes a considerable amount of time, which school leaders do not usually have (particularly when they are expected to turn things around quickly after a poor inspection outcome).
In order for this change to happen, it is important to have an internal ‘champion’ who understands the need for a change in culture; hopefully a school leader.
Although this change cannot be driven by an external individual, it is a process that can be facilitated by such a person.
So, what do school leaders need to consider when they are working on cultural change?
Influences on School Culture
There are five key factors that influence a school’s culture:
A school’s values and mission
Staff recruitment and selection
Staff involvement in school processes and decisions
Let’s take each one individually and identify how each factor can contribute to a school’s overall improvement.
1) The School’s Values and Mission
What are they?
Does everyone know what they are?
Are these clearly visible in the school’s day-to-day practice?
Does the school measure how well these values and this mission is visible in the school?
Also, is the vision of those who started the school known?
To start an independent school, potential proprietors go through a rigorous application process during which the DfE and Ofsted work together to ensure that the school will meet the required standards.
Understanding what motivated them to start their own school goes a long way towards understanding a school’s values and mission statements. It might even inspire staff to take up the mantle of that vision and work to deliver on the mission.
2) Recruiting Staff Members Who Are the Right Fit
Make sure those responsible for recruitment search, not just for people who are suitably qualified and experienced for school roles, but for people who are the right fit for the school.
Recruit people who are aligned with the school’s values and mission statement. Look for individuals whose experience shows that the way they do things is similar to the school’s cultural norms.
Make sure that the person specification on job adverts has specific wording that alludes to the school’s values and mission statement.
3) Ensure Induction Is Effective
Making sure that when new staff members join the school they are effectively inducted into the school’s culture is important. As important as making sure that the school’s culture is conducive to improvement.
4) Involving Staff in All School Improvement Procedures
Involve them extensively in monitoring every aspect of the provision, self-evaluation, improvement planning, and the implementation of improvement plans.
Doing so increases buy-in and inspires ownership of these procedures, therefore contributing to making school improvement part of the school culture.
Make sure communication is effective.
Include top-down and bottom-up lines of communication.
Share information and avoid a secretive approach.
If staff understand the importance of compliance with the Independent School Standards, their role in compliance, and how robustly the DfE regulates and enforce the standards, they will understand why certain issues need to be prioritised and they will not feel put upon.
Develop a Culture Conducive to Improvement
What else can leaders do to develop a culture conducive to improvement?
Well, you could encourage staff to read about school improvement and the growth mindset. Or organise training in these areas as a starting point.
Just remember, the list above is not exhaustive. Because every school is unique and their individual needs are different.
But, for school leaders looking to develop their school’s culture into one that drives continual school improvement, with the information above, you’re ‘almost’ there.
There’s just one thing missing.
Get in touch to find out.