When I first started as a teacher I became fascinated by organisational culture. So much so that I spent several years researching the impact it had on school effectiveness as part of my M.Ed. I tried to unpick the component parts of a school’s culture to see if there was any one particular element or force that was more conducive to securing change than others. I came at it from the premise that ‘understanding the culture of a school is a prerequisite to making the school more effective.’ (Deal, 1988).
I recall one particular 1993 booklet called ‘Transforming the Dinosaurs’ by the Think Tank Demos. It opens rather portentously with the line, ‘There is anxiety in the land’, and goes on to ridicule Britain’s recent failures in cricket, rugby, football and tennis. We were a laughing stock, claimed the author: ‘The critics did not expect Britain to win all the races but they did expect us at least to be able to run them’. We even failed to start the Grand National that year, exposing us to further ridicule on the world stage with yet another national failure. (Any resemblance to the current political shambles is entirely coincidental.)
According to Demos, the reason for these failures was simple. Our cultures were broken. Not just as a nation, but also ‘the individual cultures of the institutions which make it up.’ It was somebody else’s problem therefore. (Again, any resemblance etc…) The problem it seemed, was that in 1993 we’d failed to create a ‘learning society’, and that our organisational cultures had been allowed to stagnate. Like the dinosaurs, organisations were becoming extinct because we’d failed to respond to rapid change. We had nobody else to blame but ourselves.
Actually, that wasn’t entirely true. It was apparently us teachers that were at fault and the piece pulls no punches when pointing the finger:
Teachers have little understanding of the thinking and skills currently needed in the real world, let alone those that will be needed in the 21st century… Too many teachers are cut off from the world in which their students will live and work.
I’ll leave that one there. Here’s another:
Teachers do not understand how business operates and, in particular, the emphasis they put on team work… They do not emphasise the need to learn how to learn.
And if that’s not enough for you:
Schools continue to over-emphasise the performance of children as individuals, not their ability to work successfully and creatively in teams.
It gets worse:
After a hundred years or so of compulsory formal education, schools are still failing to provide the school leavers we need.
The author’s solution to fixing the broken cultures was cunningly simple. Namely, that, ‘we should insist that every teacher should work in one or two private sector jobs before the age of 40, ideally in their 30s.’ The government then chipped in by rolling out a National Curriculum and an Office for Standards of Education. Problem solved; cultures rebooted.
Fast forward 25 years or so and many would argue that very little has changed. We still can’t agree on the purpose of education or how best to hold it to account. It’s not surprising therefore that we find it so hard to change anything on a national scale. Perhaps our cultures are still broken and until we know how to fix them, nothing will ever change, especially when it comes to wellbeing.
When a school seeks to become powerfully effective it does so by creating a climate or culture in which the range of values is high and commitment to those values translates into motivation. (Murgatroyd, 1993)
Golden threads and circles
I spoke about this recently at ASCL’s annual conference at the ICC in Birmingham. The theme was Connected Leadership. I suggested that as leaders we need to be aware of the golden thread that binds together our school cultures. It was based on a paper written in 2011 by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in the Harvard Business Review.
The thread is made up of two main strands:
1. Core ideology – our values and mission or purpose
2. An envisioned future – a goal plus a vision statement
The wisest leaders are mindful all the time, that as with most threads it can be difficult to see. If it unwinds though, and we fail to spot it, the whole thing can eventually unravel and fall apart. Most importantly, the research makes clear that without a compelling and engaging core ideology – known and shared by all – any attempts at affecting change are likely to prove ineffective. It all boils down to starting always with the ‘why’ at the centre of Simon Sinek’s golden circle.
When I revisit the literature that I reviewed almost a quarter of a century ago, much of what we mean by ‘culture’ remains true today. Essentially, the term culture is an attempt at trying to define and bring to life the richness and vitality of the sum of all the actions, rituals and routines of a group of people who are living, breathing and working together in an organisation over a period of time. It’s ‘the way we do things around here’ or ‘that which keeps the herd heading west’.
There seems almost to be a tacit acceptance that we have to put up with our cultures; that we have to accept that they cannot be changed and either we put up or shut up. This of course is a short-sighted view. Cultures most definitely can be changed, and as a school leader you are in a very privileged position to be able to do so.
Returning one final time to the Demos booklet, the central argument is that cultures can – and must – be changed if we are to continue to innovate. They suggest that culture can be changed in four ways.
Coercion – where organisations are forced to change as a result of a takeover or external intervention
Contagion – where individuals from outside move in to bring in a new culture
Coaching – where organisations choose to bring in outside experts to help it change
Learning – where the organisation becomes self-evolving and knows how to adapt through the creation of a ‘learning organisation’
Clearly, the fourth option is the most desirable way and it is here, within the confines of the learning organisation, where we’ve seen the biggest shift since the 1990s in our understanding of what makes for a powerful school culture.
That shift can be found in the emergence of a new thread, one that is fundamental to the effectiveness of a school culture. I mentioned it briefly earlier in regard to staff wellbeing. It is astonishing looking back at the definitions of organisational culture in the 90s that very little emphasis was placed on the importance of mental health and wellbeing. This is hardly surprising given that TQM (or Total Quality Management) was all the rage and that leaders were meant to be trying to find ways of getting more out by putting less in. Staff wellbeing was on nobody’s agenda.
Nowadays, if you want to do a quick organisational culture health check, forget all the fancy leadership research and theory. Simply talk to a few teachers about their mental health and wellbeing and you’ll soon get a feel for what the culture in the school is like.
The motivated school
One of the ways that we can build great cultures in our schools – ensuring that wellbeing and mental health remain centre stage throughout – is by focussing relentlessly on the 3Bs of believe, belong and behave. If you build everything around these, you are more likely to create a culture that allows you to fulfil your mission in a way that promotes high levels of wellbeing and motivation. It’s what Andy Buck calls ‘discretionary effort’.
Inspired by Alan McLean’s book ‘The Motivated School’, I’ve basically taken his 3As (affiliation, agency and autonomy) and made them my own by shamelessly nudging them one place up the alphabet and thereby claiming them as mine.
BELIEVE: This is about staff believing in you and your team as authentic leaders with high levels of integrity. Staff also need to believe in the vision and core purpose of the school. More importantly, they also need to believe in themselves and to ditch any limiting beliefs that are holding them back, instead feeling empowered. It is your job as leader to make this happen, remembering always that a belief is simply one person’s perception of reality. Change the reality, and you change the belief.
BELONG: This is about your staff knowing their place in the organisation; that they are heard, valued, consulted, listened to and that they have real influence on how the school grows and develops organically (as a learning organisation). Nobody wants to come to work if they feel they don’t belong, so schools need to engage and motivate staff so that they always feel they are making a difference. Co-invention and consensus are key.
BEHAVE: If you can create a culture where staff feel they do believe and belong, the chances are you’ll get the behaviours you desire consistent with your values. Vision will show the staff the way, but it’s your values that will show them how to behave in order to get there. If you have no values, then you have no vision. More importantly, if you have no values (or core ideology), your staff will not know how they are to behave when it comes to doing the right thing. This is at the very heart of good leadership.
Never before has the wellbeing of the teaching profession been so important. There is indeed anxiety in the land and we as leaders must do all we can to address it in our schools. There is no job more demanding or complex than teaching children, especially during times of turbulence, austerity and uncertainty.
Greater funding, better pensions, shorter hours, less accountability, more pay, are all very nice. But put me in a school that I believe in, where I can thrive in a culture where I feel I belong, with a compelling set of core values that help me and my team behave with integrity and compassion, and I’ll guarantee you that I will become the best version of myself I could possibly be.
Note: The author attributed to writing the Demos piece is Professor Sir Douglas Hague, a British economist who became one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest and trusted advisers as a member of the No. 10 Policy Unit. He occasionally wrote speeches for her. You can download a free PDF version of Transforming the Dinosaurs: How Organisations Learn here.
You can also learn more about culture and school effectiveness in my book The Art of Standing Out available at Amazon.
Additional references (cited in M.Ed research):
Deal, T. 1988, The Symbolism of Effective Schools, in Westoby, A. (Ed), Culture and Power in Educational Organisations, Ch 12.
Murgatroyd, S. 1993, Implementing Total Quality Management in the School: Challenges and Opportunity in School Organisation, 13, 3: 269-281.