Digging deep into school culture

A culture is conceived when shared basic assumptions create a rationale for doing things a certain way. Often such assumptions are based on an identified problem that needs solving or a perceived demand that needs meeting. A solution is found and it shapes ‘the way we do things around here’.

Take education. When state schools were first conceived, there was a shared assumption that we needed to develop academic intelligence in children – our economy needed an educated workforce. It was assumed that to be academically intelligent or ‘learned’ meant being literate, numerate and knowledgeable. The skills that a white-collar worker utilised whilst seated at his desk were held to be of greatest value.

The remedy found was to design and then formally teach a standard curriculum of subjects, which comprised core knowledge and professorial skills, to all pupils and accompany this with formal academic qualifications that tested knowledge retention, literacy and numeracy. It was assumed that pupils could be incentivised to play the game through rewards if they worked hard and sanctions if they didn’t.

These assumptions gave rise to a deeply-rooted culture, in which, above everything else, each individual needed to make good academic progress. It was the driving force behind everything that took place in a school. And it still is today, nothing has changed. Whatever you do as a teacher, whether it is instructional, pastoral, creative, enriching or just plain fun, whether it is bespoke and tailored or universal and inclusive, it will always be held up against the same aim of enabling pupils to make expected progress. ‘Have you measured the impact of this learning activity? Can you demonstrate the efficacy of that teaching strategy?’ And just recently, ‘Show me the intent, implementation and impact of what you are doing.’ (The sub-text being if you can’t demonstrate a positive impact on your students’ academic progress then you shouldn’t be doing it).

These are the deep-down roots from which school culture has grown. Assumptions led to solutions which shaped the way schools were run, and still are today.

And every year thousands of students leave school with the misbelief that they are the sum of their grades. Of course they do. It is an unintended consequence of the system – or an intended one.

But those early assumptions are now proven to be flawed. Leaders of today’s industries suggest that such an unremitting focus on academic intelligence is not delivering what is needed in the workplace. Counsellors and experts in emotional well-being suggest that the drive for academic intelligence is having a detrimental effect on too many students’ mental health and creating a binary culture of success or failure. There are calls for more resilience, emotional intelligence, communication skills and creative thinking. Of course there are. The system was never designed to deliver on those things. It could have done, but shared assumptions and beliefs held by the architects of state education at the time were focused on other things: developing literacy, numeracy and academic knowledge.

At last, new shared assumptions are building – we are identifying some problems and we are reaching out for solutions, which will in turn shape our new culture. I for one cannot wait for the new architects of our education system (whoever they may be; few Secretaries of State for Education remain in the job long enough to make sustainable changes and even fewer have any experience of education beyond their own schooling) to identify the problems, find new solutions and then let these shape the way we do things in school.

If we were to re-imagine what school is for, we would probably not begin with knowledge retention, literacy and numeracy skills. This is because we would look to the future and consider what skills, attitudes and aptitudes will be required at work, at home and in the societies and communities that surround us. Problem-solving and innovative thinking would probably rank highly, if future generations are to solve the problems we’ve bequeathed to them: an unsustainable population, dwindling resources, climate change, and so on.

If we were to identify different priorities to those of before, like social responsibility, environmental awareness, innovation, how to manage leisure time, creativity and problem-solving to be important aims for our education system to deliver on, just imagine what kind of enriching culture that would lead to.

I can continue to make significant changes to the culture in my school, as I am striving to do every day. I can continue to shout from the roof tops that it is our community values, our shared ethos and our habits for learning that are the things that really matter around here. But until major architectural work is carried out in the offices of the Department for Education by persons far cleverer than me, the cultural changes I make in my school will not take root at the deepest level. They are built on other, older roots – the roots that took hold when education was conceived a long time ago, in a different age, with a different purpose in mind.

Times can change, systems can evolve, old problems may not even be problems any more, as new ones emerge, but the solutions that were found in the past still dictate the way we do things now.


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