Developing an International School Culture?
While thinking about what to write on this topic, I came across an interesting article on the BBC website: Ofsted said: “Some schools had a deep embedded school culture, resistant to change, with staff not believing that it was possible to overcome the factors that stood in the way of children receiving a good education. “Other schools were chaotic and continually changing. For example, one school had been under the leadership of 14 different head teaches in 10 years.”
Ofsted seeks judgement-free approach to ‘stuck schools’
By Hannah Richardson, BBC News education reporter. 8 January 2020 What I found interesting was the phrase, ‘deep embedded school culture’ (clearly not in a good way), the reference to ‘factors that stood in the way’ and the way that chaos can also be a culture. Unfortunately, international schools also have a tendency for a high turnover of leaders. I once accepted the position of Principal in an international school only to discover I was the fourth leader in less than two years. Needless to say, two years later the school is on its sixth.
What is school culture? Shien (1985) describes it as:
‘The deeper level of basic assumptions and beliefs that are shared by members of an organisation, that operate unconsciously, and that define in a basic ‘taken-for-granted’ fashion an organisation’s view of itself and its environment”.
I like to think of it as, ‘Who we are’ and the ‘Way we do things’. If we are considering how to develop a school culture, then we have to start at the beginning, because every school, no matter its age, will have a prevailing culture. What is it? I do not believe looking at the mission statement is of much help and challenge any teaching professional or parent to find a mission statement they disagree with. Culture often starts with the owners, whether they are the State, private individuals or groups. For international schools, the external environment, has a heavy influence on culture, where national, regional and local culture; laws, languages, religion and traditions largely determine who we are and the way we do things. Flag-raising is a requirement in many international schools but also sets the tone for the morning.
Culture develops through the life of a school. New and young schools typify my leadership career. This is because I consider myself a ‘builder’ and what attracts me about these schools is the potential to develop or shape a culture, supported by governance that shares the same vision. I prefer them to mature schools that have ‘deeply embedded’ school cultures, which are much harder to change, if that’s what they need, They are like supertankers that take miles to stop and turn around. Similarly with ‘group’ schools, which are gaining in dominance in the international school market. Group, and inevitably school, culture is driven from a head office and supported by group policies that reinforce it. The groups employ like-minded leaders, who employ like-minded teachers, who teach children of like-minded parents who buy into the culture. These schools are, on the whole, very successful against a range of measures, but as a builder, they have never been for me. If you like Big Macs then you know they will be the same quality everywhere you go. They are reliable and do the job. If you want more tomato, less lettuce and a bit more cheese, opera playing in the background and you are in no rush then go elsewhere.
Academic research writes about ‘Positive’, ‘Negative’, ‘Strong’, ‘Weak’ and even ‘Toxic’ cultures. I will not to go into these, other to say as professionals we tend to know which type we are working in, and to ask which type of school culture, taken from personal experience, do these examples belong?
‘The school doesn’t pay teachers’ salaries until January as it is worried teachers will not return to work after Christmas.’ ‘Over 90% of teaching staff and teaching assistants volunteered to be in the staff pantomime’.
The next question to ask as a leader is what culture do we want for the school? Clearly a strong, positive one as this inevitably leads to high achievement and a string of other tangible and intangible benefits, such as being oversubscribed, profitable, having lower staff turnover, externally recognised achievements and accreditation, and of course a good reputation.
Finally, and the focus of this article, we have to ask what we need to do in order to get there? Given that a culture already exists in every school, how do we develop it? My personal view is that central to ‘who we are’ and ‘the way we do things’ is the ‘we’, particulary the staff who deliver the outstanding teaching and learning. If I can get the staff culture right and aligned with the school’s values, most other things fall into place.
I am a disciple of Daniel Pink and his book, ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.’ For those who have not read it, Pink says that for many people, motivation can be improved by Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. I decided to become a school leader because I wanted the autonomy, because I wanted to be the best leader I could be and because I always had a passion for making a difference to young people. I apply the same principle to our teachers; I have high expectations of them professionally and I want to set them free. I want them to take risks with learning, to regard the curriculum as a framework not a prescription, to master their subjects or disciplines and to contribute to the success of every student they teach. They still make the burgers but some have jalapenos and some are vegan.
I believe the spin-offs of this approach in terms of positive culture are massive. We get loyalty and low staff turnover, we get mutual trust, we get outstanding teaching and learning, we get high achievement, positive student behaviour because it is modelled by adults, we get joy and fun, a satisfied community that contributes to the school culture and of course we tick the boxes on our mission statement. Yes, we have written policies, but you can tell what they are by walking around the school and looking at our Facebook page.
Positive school culture is not to be taken for granted. A good school still needs to be reflective, to keep improving and learning, to employ and develop staff who ‘fit’ the school, to communicate its values and above all remember not just, ‘Who we are’ but ‘Why we do it’.
Schein, E.H. (1985). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. p. 6