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I may have underestimated culture and ethos

For a long time I have tweeted and written about the importance of culture and ethos in schools. 'Everything stands and falls on culture and ethos' sort of thing. I am now beginning to think I may have been underselling culture and ethos. For the last couple of months one of the schools I lead has been host to most of a neighbouring school following the destruction of part of their school by storm Desmond in December. This has given me the perfect opportunity to consider differences and similarities in schools. What I have observed in that time is that, though their pupils and their staff look  like any of the pupils and staff from our own school, they are different. Not just individually different, which you might expect, but collectively different. I am not saying that either is better by the way, I am just noting that they are different. The biggest reason why I think the collective body of pupils and staff are different is to do with the culture and ethos of both settings, not just them being different individuals. The collective behaviours of those who make up both schools are different.

Let's look at the schools closer. Both are situated in the same town in Scotland. Both are operated by the same local authority and both are supposedly delivering the same curriculum, Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence. Our School Improvement Plans are very similar. Both are looking to develop their curriculum further, improve learning and teaching and both are trying to use practitioner enquiry as a vehicle for professional development. Both are working closely and collaboratively in their local Cluster, focused on the secondary school both feed into. Both have nursery classes, and primary classes from P1 to P7. Both have experienced headteachers and a mixture of experienced teaching staff and support staff. Both have Parent Councils and a similar social mix of students and families. Yet they are different!

Pupils, parents and staff react differently in similar situations, even when co-habiting the same building. The pupils are different in the way they move about the school. They are different in the playground, and interact differently with each other, and the adults, out in those playgrounds. They are different in the lunch hall and at lunch times. They are different in their classrooms and how they engage with their learning and their teachers. Their parents are different in their inter-actions with the school and the staff.   They are different in their attitudes and their expectations. They too are different in the playground when they are dropping off, or collecting their children. The staff are different too. They interact with each other differently. They interact with the children differently and have different expectations. They interact with the school leadership differently, and the school leadership interacts differently with them.

A lot of these differences are small and subtle, but collectively they produce a school community that is very different to our own. Again I repeat, I am not judging one better than the other I am only commenting that, despite all their similarities, we are different. I would argue that those differences have powerful impacts for learners, staff and parents in each setting. I have been thinking more and more recently that the culture and ethos of a school is not only crucial to facilitating learning and development, perhaps it is the culture and ethos that provides most of the learning and development that learners experience. What learners experience, especially in their formative years in school, has a dominant impact not only on how they learn, but on what they learn. They are immersed in the culture and ethos of their school which they experience through direct and indirect actions and interactions on a daily basis. Every interaction between themselves and the adults, and those they witness happening indirectly, are giving them messages of how a community works and operates. They are developing social, emotional and intellectual skills and capacities every day because of the culture and ethos they are experiencing. Many of the aptitudes, attitudes and capacities we are now seeking to develop, and which are sought after by societies across the globe, are very difficult, if not impossible, to teach directly. But they can be modelled and developed through the every-day actions and experiences learners are exposed to.

It could also be argued that those very aptitudes, attitudes and capacities are more important in developing successful, confident, responsible and effective individuals than most of the knowledge and facts we spend so much time thinking about and delivering in our schools. I am not saying knowledge, facts and the need for literacy and numeracy skills are not important, they are. What I am saying is that perhaps a lot of the learning that happens in school, happens indirectly and almost hidden from view. It could be that this hidden learning is more crucial in shaping our learners and their attitudes to learning, society and their view of the world, than we perhaps have acknowledged or given credit to. If this is the case, perhaps it is time we gave even more attention to the culture and ethos that prevails in our schools, and school leaders should consider what that culture and ethos says about their establishments and their attitudes to their learners. They are watching and listening, and then absorbing the culture and ethos that brings our values to life.

As school leaders we need to recognise these subtle differences between our own establishments and everyone else's. We need to consider the learning that is taking place, explicit and implicit, and how we plan for and facilitate this in the embedded culture of our establishments, recognising the importance of not just what we say and do, but also what we don't say and do. Many have written of the importance of context when considering systems at national and local level. I am more than ever convinced that we need to recognise that same importance at individual, and classroom, level. That is why any new development or initiative, that is based on 'best practice' elsewhere, needs to be engaged with critically and adapted to fit individual context and circumstances. 'One size fits one' as someone tweeted me the other day.

All of this also explains why attempts to impose the same change from above, in a hierarchical structure, are ultimately doomed to failure.

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