What Exactly Is School Culture?

Some years ago, I probably naively ignored the climate that was being created in the first school where I taught. I can now look back and see that with a new headteacher in place, lots of work was being done to unite a team and ensure our core values aligned as well as allow staff the breathing space to be themselves. This culture was integral to the rapid improvement of a school that was showing some cracks. Priorities were set out. Standards were raised. Leaders were visible.

Having taught in four schools across three London boroughs and spent a lot of time in different schools in and out of my multi-academy trust, I have been fortunate to see and experience a range of cultures at work.

Im nosy by nature so I have spent a lot of time behind the scenes (or trying to worm my way back there) to see the cogs turning. How are decisions made? How are they communicated? When do leaders consult staff? When do they sell it to them? When do they just tell them? This stuff fascinates me.

So, when thinking about workplace culture in schools, I headed to the standard dictionary definition which is the customs and beliefs, art, way of life and social organisation of a particular workplace”. This is definitely true. Culture comes from a shared moral purpose and a shared vision, which is rooted in trust.

However, culture is not just about shared values and norms. I also wanted to consider another side to the culture coin. Culture comes from the Latin word cultura, which means growing or cultivation. If we want crops to grow, we need the conditions to be right. Any Year 3 child could tell you that! Likewise, if we want our schools and staff to grow, then the conditions need to be right. This isnt a game of chance or luck. It involves careful curation and nurturing of a range of customs and beliefs that shape our environment.

Stoll and Finks research at the Institute of Education (1996) shows that school cultural norms are vital for all adults and pupils to thrive. They found ten cultural norms that influenced school improvement.

Ten cultural norms

  1. Shared goals
  2. Responsibility for success
  3. Collegiality
  4. Continuous improvement
  5. Lifelong learning
  6. Risk-taking
  7. Support
  8. Mutual respect
  9. Openness
  10. Celebration and humour

But culture isnt just a list of values or ideas printed on a sheet of paper that gets handed around each September. It must be lived, breathed and experienced. Culture is ever-changing. It isnt static. Its core might remain the same, but its likely to transform and fluctuate as time goes on and as staff change.

This stuff matters. Theres no two ways about it.

When culture goes wrong

There are countless horror stories of the impact that a negative culture can have on staff. While there are always two sides to every story, we must acknowledge that some leaders do get this stuff wrong. Social media is full of teachers at the end of their tether with toxic workplaces.

Having scrolled through numerous online teacher groups for the last couple of months, I have seen:

  • a teacher who is made to feel guilty for being off work ill
  • someone being told they won’t be paid if they want to go to their child’s nativity performance
  • someone asking what hours everyone else works because they do 7:30am-5pm and have had comments made about their dedication to the job
  • an early career teacher explaining that their mentor regularly calls them a cause for concern
  • countless teachers crying over nasty and unhelpful feedback in observations
  • a teacher overhearing her head and deputy calling her names
  • a senior leader berating staff for booking something in the hall on the day he wanted to use it
  • a new teacher in the staffroom listening to other staff making unkind comments about leaders and saying they just don’t care about the job that much

…the list could go on. This barely touches the sides!

The saddest thing is that some of the comments suggest these people should just put their heads down and get on with it because it might be worse somewhere else or its just part of the job.

I am sure that the positive experiences outweigh the negative. But that doesnt make it ok. 99 out of 100 schools with a positive culture is not good enough. No teacher should go to work worried about what will happen that day. People deserve to feel psychologically safe in their workplace.

The negative impact of a toxic culture in school could also be detrimental to the education of its students, which is devastating when you consider that educating children and young people is why most of us are in this job.

Lets look at positive culture

A positive school culture results in teachers who are excited to teach, who feel valued and invested in, and who want to try things out because they want the best education for their pupils. Positive workplace cultures involve all of the norms that Stoll and Fink discuss. Staff feel like part of a team. Work is enjoyable; people laugh! There is a shared vision and purpose. Nobody feels unsure about the reaction theyll get if they suggest something new.

So, what do we do and whose responsibility is it?

Ultimately, the culture of school starts and ends with its leaders. Leaders need to take the temperature of the current culture in their school and consider which of Stoll and Finks ten norms are already in place and which arent. All of the staff have a role to play in ensuring the culture ticks along, but the leaders are responsible for setting the tone and working with any bad eggs on moving them forward to become part of the team.

I dont think Ill shut up about this until I stop hearing wild stories of leaders on power trips who have cultivated a negative climate. Nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes, but human error and negative emotional reactions shouldn’t become a deliberate choice.

Finally, if you do find yourself in a toxic environment, please know that there are better schools out there and you do not need to suffer in silence.

You can read more articles by Shannen Doherty here.


Shannen is a Senior Leader and classroom teacher at a primary school in London. She loves all things Maths and enjoys getting nerdy about teaching and learning. Shannen’s debut book, 100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Maths, came out in May 2021.

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