Character, ethos and your school website

Written by: Matt Bawden | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Is your school website dull and dry or does it communicate the ethos, character and heart of your school? In the context of character education, Matt Bawden offers some advice

This article is about digital ecosystems, or so someone told me. This is because websites are digital ecosystems, full of possibilities. I was told this by someone on social media.

Having taught for a number of years, I remember when they were definitely just websites – in fact I remember when they were paper-based! So when I heard the term “ecosystem” I laughed, but I was wrong.

A website needs to be connected: connected to the students, the staff, the parents, the community, the inspectorate, the world. It offers a guide for us all and a sense of direction for further reading.

The problem is that many websites are often an extension of the paper copies of school documents. We click through the pages as we might a guidebook, and as with any book, where there is no overall narrative we skip to the good bits. If we are searching for a job we read some parts, if we are concerned about our child we read others. It becomes clear the only ones who do not read the guidebook are the ones who feel they do not need it. I hesitate to say it, but this might be the staff.

For me, having an interest in character education draws me to the sections of a website containing a school’s vision and values, perhaps their ethos, or their “about us” pages. These are often fascinating and informative.

In the last few months I have had the pleasure of visiting amazing schools as a part of a character education project led by the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues on behalf of the Department for Education. In each case I explored the website first and considered what I would see when I walked through the doors.

Such reading raises an interesting question. How much should the website reflect the character of the school? The connected nature of a great website can be a beauty to behold, enticing new students to the school, staff to apply for jobs, inspectors to have a favourable view before they arrive.

Yet does it need to simply reflect the reality? Perhaps it should mirror the potential – being an inspiration to all those stakeholders who might access it.

What is our school about?

It probably doesn’t matter what you do, people will always read different things in to what goes on your website. I recently heard of a family who selected a 6th form for their son because there was a picture of the school’s LGBT+ noticeboard. Their son did not identify as LGBT+ but they felt, as a family, that any school promoting such an atmosphere would be a caring and supportive place to study. I have no idea if the school had consciously decided to include the picture to attract students, yet it had that effect.

One of my own favourite websites has a video on the first page showing the community actually building the school. Within five minutes I knew what the school was about. I knew the community invested a lot of time in the fabric of the place, the students helped lay the bricks, the teachers painted the classroom walls. It was a true “community” school.

I often find myself wishing I’d had the forethought to do some of the things other schools have done. Certainly if I were opening a new school, or introducing an extension, even repurposing older areas, I would film it.

Of course, there are not many of us who can video our school being built, but then we do not need to. The first thing we need to do is sit down and decide what our school is about. Some are traditional, others innovative, many take pride in being community schools, yet more see their mission as helping those others leave out.

Whatever our school is about is what needs to be on the website. It is what ties the pages together, helps the reader see the links between pages, and stops those annoying moments when you realise you’ve been scanning for minutes and still have no idea what the place is like.

Let’s say we believe our school is an inclusive family-like place – if we take a minute to read the website as a prospective parent might, would we agree? Are there phrases leaping out recalling love and care? Do the titles reflect our supporting climate – or are they blank and cold? It can be really informative to actually ask the parents, the staff, the students, the community etc what sort of school they feel the website shows.

What needs to go on the website?

Deciding who we are is fine, the next thing is to show this to others. Looking through a few school websites easily highlights trends in both content and priority.

I remember one academic who produced a report on the ethos of a school as shown by their photographs. If we look at a school website and note the various activities the students are undertaking, their genders, ages, perhaps even ethnicity, do we find an accurate snapshot of school life? Or do we find something idealised, perhaps skewed, or at worst totally unrepresentative?

Ofsted expects a lot from a website, and rightly so. Yet in putting this information on our sites we can do our schools a huge disservice. In reality, a tab leading to our handling of Catch-Up Premium funding, or the intended spend for Pupil Premium can be very informative but may still not promote the school.

Adding pictures of student activity using this funding, quotes from happy students, parents and carers, or even links to examples of this great work as seen on other websites can bring the whole thing alive.

A sample menu from the canteen, with lovely pictures of happy cooks and warming meals can bring a sense of cheer to an otherwise matter-of-fact page on healthy schools. A video of students explaining the marking policy is much more illuminating than a page of text and a homework timetable.

Character education

Returning to considering the needs of our inspectors, we can see perhaps the most important part of the website. This is the school’s statement about ethos and values.

If everything chimes on the website, the statement will provide an accurate reflection of school life in much the same way as the site does. There will be a clear triangulation between what the site shows, what the students, parents, community, and staff experience, and what is written in the statement.

I have already stressed the importance of viewing the site from the point of view of a range of stakeholders. The next thing is to make sure that what you want to see there not only matches the reality but also the stated ethos of the school.

When the statement lists values such as honesty, independence, resilience and community spirit, the site ought to show these in the words used, the pictures shown, and the ordering of content.

This doesn’t mean each value needs its own tab, there should be no need to be so explicit. Instead the article about extra-curricular sport might show the resilience of the students, the policy around SEN highlights independence, and so on. The key thing must be that the ethos says this is the case, the website reinforces it, but then the reality as you walk through the doors matches.

Some schools highlight an aspect of their values every so often and publish loads of work on this value to demonstrate it across the school. This can look amazing on the website’s front page – though as a word of caution it is important to remember the rest of the values; something showcasing the school’s work on community spirit, for example, could easily bring in the other values and character traits. After all helping on a charity stand at a village or town fair can be arduous work requiring both resilience and good humour. At this time of year a beaming picture of helpers wrapped in layers of woollen hats and scarves serving tea to parents at an open evening can summarise this to the casual website reader far quicker than any amount of well contrived words.

In summary

  • Consider what your school is all about.
  • Think about how you show this in your statement on ethos and values.
  • Explore your use of pages, pictures and phrases to see if they match your statement.
  • Ask others to see if they feel your ethos, your website, and the reality show the same school you know and love (if you see it a little like a profile on a dating site you won’t go far wrong).
  • The best profiles are open, frank, clear and show character. We feel we know the person/place before we meet them.
  • A badly written profile/website attracts no-one.
  • An awful picture can be very off-putting, even the worst of us can scrub up for a single image.
  • A great profile/website can be very attractive but it must match the reality or we will quickly leave, or at least start hoping it will end soon.
  • Matt Bawden is an assistant headteacher at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne and editor of the Association for Character Education eJournal Character Matters. He is a former teacher-in-residence with the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues. Follow @ourschoolday. To read his previous articles and SecEd’s other best practice relating to character, visit http://bit.ly/1OvQtqv


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