The Importance of School Culture

In Confident Leadership, Debates and Polemics by Alex Quigley4 Comments

Wouldn’t life be great if we could easily learn from the best and recreate it in our own image? Take schools: can’t we peer admiringly at the dizzy heights of school league tables and the like, or search out the gleaming gems of best practice from speeches by the great and the good, and simply copy what they do. Surely, we would all be better off.

If only it were that easy…

In recent weeks, I have looked on as teachers debated the merits of the usual  fare: mixed ability grouping versus setting; progressive versus traditionalist approaches and more. Though our understanding of the best of what is thought and enacted is no doubt probed in such scraps, we too often miss the crucial importance played by a unique school culture and how it permeates and determines so much of the approaches taken in a school.

Take the laudable excellence of King Solomon Academy (KSA), in London. They sit proudly atop league tables for the truly superb performance of their state school students. We should herald their success and shout it loudly, but at the same time we should be wary of attempting to simply imitating what they do.

For example, KSA have an interesting model of mixed ability mathematics teaching. It shows that despite the protestations of many maths teachers, that mixed ability teaching can be done – and brilliantly at that. But we should ask: what is their unique teacher knowledge and experience; what is their staffing capacity; what are the existing beliefs of those maths teachers. All these prove crucial support factors that determine the success, or failure, of different student grouping approaches.

Mixed ability grouping in maths may not likely work anywhere near as well in other schools with a different context and a different culture. This needn’t mean we should ignore the board evidence that supports mixed ability grouping approaches, such evidence is a must to challenge our biases, but we should take great care in understanding its implementation.

As a wave of new schools have followed KSA, we have seen many different school cultures emerging. You have intriguing schools like ‘School 21‘, which is founded upon a culture of real world learning, oracy, project based learning and a self-titled ’21st century approach’.

Contrast this apparently ‘progressive’ school culture with a school like Michaela School, in Brent, London (this school housed the debate that sparked the idea for this blog). This new Free School promotes itself as embodying a more ‘traditional’ approach, with unabashedly strict parameters of behaviour, direct teacher instruction, a longer school day and the like.

Both schools promote themselves very well and would seemingly prove the diametric opposite of one another, but I imagine that both schools succeed because they are founded upon a strong school culture that teachers, parents and students opt into, however starkly different that culture proves.

I reckon each of the three schools have benefitted from emerging as a small school with a greater capacity to develop a strong and shared school culture. For most schools, a new Headteacher would be faced with one hundred teachers with a vast variety of existing beliefs and experience; with a school culture already established. Change is hard; changing a culture is even harder. We should consider this issue of complexity.

At my school, Huntington School in York, we have our unique culture, developed over years that determines the success of our methods. We cannot simply copy KSA, nor would we wish to do so, but we can learn from them. School teachers and leaders that visit Huntington receive the same message.

I am not suggesting that every school is such a unique snowflake that we cannot ever compare, nor learn from one another as schools; indeed, we can and should, with a healthy dose of humility. But we should be wary of taking a school culture off the shelf, or simply buying in products that have worked in shiny schools down the road because they promise to solve and satisfy us. If we don’t consider the requisite support factors needed, or our own existing school culture, they likely won’t work.


[I would add the caveat that I have not visited any of the schools mentioned in this blog and therefore I cannot truly judge their school culture beyond how they present themselves in their online materials.]


    1. Author

      My understanding is that they do mixed ability at KS3 and I am sure I saw Mr Bruno Reddy mention setting at KS4 on some tweet or another. I didn’t follow the details much in this post as it really isn’t about the mixed ability/setting debate. In fact, I wanted to stress the differences between schools that meant that the fine details of internal structures are secondary to school culture. Hopefully I got that across.

  1. Interesting piece. Having visited two of these three, and being somewhat familiar with the third, I would say that the similarities outweigh the differences. All three are new foundations, all three have recruited carefully and selectively (and self-selectively), and all three have very strong cultures of achievement, ambition and challenge, alongside a ‘sweat the small stuff’ approach.

    Although student work looks different: School 21 very much embodies a Ron Berger cross-curricular project approach, it is constructed (as far as I can tell) from the same teacher expertise and passion and with the same care as in the other two.

    None of which is to demur from your underlying point about borrowing. I’m actually wondering whether there’s merit in encouraging each school to develop its own narrative of uniqueness and special features, provided that their underlying ambition for students is equally strong.

    1. Author

      Thanks Harry – it is really good to get that informed opinion. I have been invited to School 21, so hopefully I get to see it in action soon. I think that aims and many methods are similar, with difference often being exaggerated to mark ourselves out as unique in what is frankly a ‘marketplace’ (I’m not comfortable with saying it, but I think that it a true description).

      In thinking through the blog, a significant cultural factor is likely the opportunity to develop a culture in a small new school setting and then build that up. I think it is an innate strength of Free Schools, Charters and the like. I think that new teams entering established schools, and wider communities, makes a shift much harder. Wed that to recruitment issues for schools on the coast and similar and getting deep, cultural change can likely prove a Herculean task. Interesting to mull it over. I think better minds than mine have no doubt articulated this better.

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