Updated: Nov 24, 2020
School culture arises from agreed collective values, assumptions and beliefs. These, in turn, determine the relationships between stakeholders, the curriculum, the pedagogy, resources, organisational arrangements and infrastructure. All schools are situated within a community, and the values inherent to the school come from this community and in turn influence it back.
School culture has been referred to as the ‘hidden curriculum’ of a school (Pollard and Triggs, 1997). It forms the rites and rituals, customs, symbols, stories, and vocabulary of a school. Students unconsciously absorb codes of behaviour and expectations from the culture in their school, which therefore directly affects their learning.
Changing aspects of a school's culture is not a quick process; any actions you take may not show results for some months or even years.
The existing culture and associated behaviours may be fairly entrenched, requiring a long-term, incremental sequence of changes before seeing any real differences. However, being aware of a school’s culture, its impact on your ability to lead change and having a vision of the culture you want to develop is critical to leading for effective learning.
School Culture and Its Impact on Learning
A school that can develop and maintain a positive shared culture knows what aspects of the culture are important in developing an effective learning environment; it consciously transmits these values to its students. Through collective awareness and action, culture can be used positively to enhance student learning and achievement, whether through small actions such as celebrating achievements in public events or to more large-scale projects such as developing democratic processes for teachers, students and other stakeholders to contribute to curriculum reform.
While it appears to be constant, culture is a dynamic space that is influenced by laws, policies and changes of leadership. It, therefore, requires school leaders to be aware of what influences or changes aspects of the school culture, whether deliberately or not, and ensuring that the culture for learning and achievement is never put at risk. Research demonstrates that school leaders have a critical role in ensuring that the culture supports student achievement (MacNeil et al., 2009). But – as identified by Bulach (2001) – a leader must identify a school’s existing culture before attempting to change it.
Positive school culture can be defined broadly to include (Character Education Partnership, 2010):
social climate, including a safe and caring environment in which all students feel welcomed and valued, and have a sense of ownership of their school; this helps students in their moral development
intellectual climate, in which all students in every classroom are supported and challenged to do their very best and achieve work of quality; this includes a rich, rigorous and engaging curriculum, and a powerful pedagogy for teaching it
rules and policies that hold all school members accountable to high standards of learning and behaviour
traditions and routines built from shared values that honour and reinforce the school’s academic and social standards
structures for giving staff and students a voice in, and shared responsibility for, solving problems and making decisions that affect the school environment and their common life
ways of effectively working with parents to support students’ learning and character growth
norms for relationships and behaviours that create a professional culture of excellence and ethical practice.
This definition covers the breadth of school life, both academic and social. However, every bullet point can be seen to have a direct impact on student learning, whether it is through developing a culture of excellence, or ensuring that students feel safe and listened to. The National Curriculum Framework (NCF) recognises this by stating that ‘schools have a major role to play in ensuring that children are socialised into a culture of self-reliance, resourcefulness, peace-oriented values and health’ (2005, p. 35).
The NEP mentions the conscious creation of a culture that has a long-term, developmental impact, stating that ‘children cannot wake up one morning and know how to participate in, preserve and enhance democracy, especially if they have had no prior personal or even second-hand experience of it, nor any role models to learn from’. It specifically mentions the importance of:
a culture of reading
a culture of innovation, curiosity and practical experience
highlighting students’ identities as ‘learners’ and creating an environment that enhances the potential and interests of each student
messages that convey interpersonal relations, teacher attitudes, and norms and values that are part of the culture of the school.
More recently, Section 17 of the Right to Education Act 2009 (RtE) is of particular significance in the context of developing positive school culture, because it states that ‘no child shall be subjected to physical punishment or mental harassment’. This calls for the school leader to focus on making the school an enabling and facilitative place for all school children, thereby providing a stress-free, child- friendly, learner-centred classroom environment, which requires redefining notions of discipline, punishment and student-teacher relationships. Further, the National Programme Design and Curriculum Framework (2014) highlights the need to empower and develop the capabilities of the school leader so that the transformed school proactively nurtures children and facilitates their all-round development.
Before understanding the role of school leaders in establishing, modelling and sharing their vision of positive school culture, it is necessary to consider how different aspects of the culture are enacted in schools.
About the Author
Dr. Atul Nischal is the Founder of the International Council for School Leadership (ICSL) and serves as the Program Director of ReSET, the 3 week online certificate program for educators.
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