Exploring your school’s ethos and culture

Written by: Archie McGlynn | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What does the ethos of your school look like? And what do you want it to look like in the future? Archie McGlynn sets out ideas for fostering professional and practical discussions among school staff to help improve your school’s culture

In schools which are well-led and where learning and teaching thrive and relationships are handled quite naturally, inspectors comment on the spirit, the ethos and underlying culture which promote positive and purposeful relationships throughout the school community.

In carrying out critical friend reviews, I keep asking myself questions such as:

  • Is the learning and teaching environment characterised by orderliness, courtesy and shared regard among staff and pupils?
  • Is there mutual support and co-operation between school leadership and staff?
  • Is there a sense of commitment, an obvious team spirit in the school?
  • Are there suitably high expectations of academic achievement and behaviour?

In evaluating ethos and culture I am drawn to Professor Andy Hargreaves (Changing Teachers, Changing Times, 1994), who argues that the ideal culture for an improving school is one which balances academic pressure and social cohesion: “Expectations of work and conduct are high – the leaders’ expectations of staff and the teachers’ expectations of pupils. Yet these standards are not perceived to be unreasonable; everyone is supported in striving for them and rewarded for reaching them. For both teachers and pupils, school is a demanding but very enjoyable place to be.”

Usually, the starting point for my critical friend reviews when I am asked to focus on ethos and culture is three or four 45-minute mini-seminars with representative samples of staff and pupils meeting separately. The seminars are informal (but structured) and interactive, allowing the participants to air their views on things that really matter in the school.

I vary my approach to take account of the school context. Sometimes, for example, I invite participants to think about the ideal in relation to seven aspects of the work of the school and its culture of learning – the aspects identified as the ones that really matter. The seven aspects are:

  1. Teachers as well as students learn in school.
  2. Teachers believe that all students in our school can be successful.
  3. Teachers regularly discuss ways of improving students’ learning.
  4. Standards set for students are consistently upheld across the school.
  5. Extra-curricular activities provide valuable opportunities for all students.
  6. Teachers share similar beliefs and attitudes about effective teaching and learning.
  7. Staff have a commitment to the whole school and not just their class.

The instrument has its origins in a major school effectiveness research study commissioned by the (then) Scottish Education Department and I have used it quite successfully in different education systems around the globe.

I complement the qualitative discussion with a quantitative one. Teachers are invited to give their views on the seven aspects in two ways – looking backwards and looking forwards.

First, they reflect on their school as they see it now, ranking each aspect on a scale of one to five (from “strongly agree through to “strongly disagree”). They are then asked to complete the same exercise a second time but thinking with a different mindset and giving their view on how important, how crucial, each statement is – thus creating their view of the ideal school. Comparisons between the two sets of responses can then be made and discussed.

Schools respond positively to the survey instrument, especially when backed up by the face-to-face exchanges in the mini-seminars. It’s straightforward, easy to use, flexible, and allows the school to compare teachers’ actuality against their views about where the school should be. It also leads to lively yet professional discussions on both the actual and ideal results.

As one school leader commented: “It is not about the quantification of the data the seven aspects provide, but more about the power of leverage that it has as a ‘tin opener’ into the culture of the school itself.”

Another head told me: “Its value is realised when it is used as an agenda for (informed) discussion, confronting the school with its own value system, its own currents and cross-currents of belief and perhaps its self-imposed inhibitions on its goals.”

At the heart of this process is the importance of openness and setting out the purposes of the critical friend review in relation to school ethos.

As one seminar group told me, there are open-ended exchanges in the workshop, generating “understanding and trust” between participants. This leads to a staff development session in the spirit of the “tin opener” method to review culture and expectations. Of the seven aspects, numbers two and four in particular usually engender strong feelings leading to a stimulating professional debate.

Quite often I take an ad hoc approach, sometimes inviting teachers to work in small groups to consider two or three of the aspects, comparing the actual and ideal.

Other times I invite some groups to identify strengths while other groups identify concerns and issues prior to sharing in plenary.

Overall, the way the results are handled is influenced by the outcomes, the priorities and the prevailing state of play in the school.
The common denominator is a willingness to think and act in a positive way, celebrating strengths and addressing common concerns and issues. Making use of the findings in an open and professional manner is crucial if the school wishes to have a greater understanding of ethos and culture and the areas in which it might improve.

A second instrument, which I have adapted for use internationally in evaluating ethos and culture, and which can complement looking backwards and looking forwards, also grew out of the Scottish Education Department research.

It lists 20 opposing aspects, inviting teachers to give their opinions (again on a five-point scale) of how their school measures up. Again the first mindset focuses on my school as it is and second on my school as I would like it to be. The 20 are:

  1. Warm or cold.
  2. Parent-friendly or parent-unfriendly.
  3. Colourful or drab.
  4. uthoritarian or democratic.
  5. Orderly or disorderly.
  6. High stress or low stress.
  7. Pessimistic or optimistic.
  8. Tense or relaxed.
  9. Competitive or uncompetitive.
  10. Reactive or proactive.
  11. Stimulating or boring.
  12. Pupil-friendly or pupil-unfriendly.
  13. Inflexible or flexible.
  14. Clear values or no clear values.
  15. Avoids conflict or responds well to conflict.
  16. Uses time well or time used badly.
  17. Risk-taking or avoids risks.
  18. Open to new ideas or sceptical.
  19. Pursues long-term goals or pursues short-term goals.
  20. Looks to the past or looks to the future.

A senior Hong Kong principal described the experience of using this tool as “stimulating an informed and positive debate on how good we are as a school and where we seem to have strengths and where we need to do better”.

He was keen to look beyond his school gate and wondered how his school’s findings would compare with other schools. Together we persuaded almost 200 school leaders and teachers from his school district to take part in the evaluation.

Almost all participants completed the questionnaire, which was then analysed, anonymised and distributed to the participating schools. The exercise led, quite unexpectedly, to the formation of what was to become Hong Kong Schools Self-evaluation Network with around 30 schools joining and myself as founder-director.

There is perhaps an opportunity here for UK schools or groups of schools: why not use the survey as it stands, or adapt it to your school’s needs – and ask how does our school compare?

The instrument helps to explore layers of school culture in a deeper way than ad hoc approaches while challenging the presence of can’t do attitudes.

It allows teachers and leaders to explore their expectations as well as satisfaction, often revealing gaps between the two. In my work, the results reveal, perhaps not unsurprisingly, differences between different groups – for example between teachers’ views and school leadership views and between teachers and support staff. What can be surprising is the significance, in some cases, of the gap between staff perceptions of the school as it is and the school as they would like it to be.

Pupils are, arguably, the most important people in a school, and I am more than happy to include them in the survey, especially in schools where there is a strong self-evaluation foundation.

I have found, almost without exception, that pupils take a responsible and considered approach. The results have thrown up many fascinating insights into the way they think and their feelings for their school.

The follow-through is powerful when the leadership brings together teachers and pupils to discuss the findings, preparing the way for an agenda for action.

A strength of the instrument is flexibility. It is, for example, not mandatory to use the list of 20 items. I prefer to tailor the list in discussion with the school leadership team to take account of the school context and any special circumstances. For example, some schools may not be ready to embrace some of the more demanding, challenging issues which come towards the end of the list.

The earlier items on the list ask people to judge the school as warm/cold, colourful/drab, welcoming/unwelcoming, which are very much intuitive measures of subjective feeling. However, items towards the end of the list are more demanding – like risk-taking/avoiding risks, flexible/inflexible, and open to new ideas/sceptical.

School improvement and school culture

It has to be borne in mind that the instruments described are to an extent subjective and impressionistic. What they do is provide a shallow-end entry to the deeper issues, exploring the subjective domain and providing a locus for people to articulate and exchange their views.

It is about embarking on a more rigorous approach to understanding school culture and asking: could it be changed for the better to support the school’s drive to improvement?

The different instruments and exchanges provide the pieces of the jigsaw giving a kind of coherence to the multi-faceted happenings within a complex organisation like a school. In evaluating ethos and delving deeper into school culture, I often think in terms of peeling an onion. Each peel is a layer of culture, leading towards the core, the DNA of the school.

The culture and the DNA are inseparable. Professor David Hopkins’ words from many years ago hold true today: “A school culture that promotes collegiality, trust and collaborative working relationships and that focuses upon teaching and learning is more likely to be self-renewing and responsive to improvement efforts.”

  • Archie McGlynn is an independent education consultant. He is founder-director of the Hong Kong Schools Self-evaluation Network (2004-2015) and founder-director of the Hong Kong Scotland School Improvement Partnership. Archie was formerly HM chief inspector of schools (Scotland) and co-authored Self-evaluation: What’s in it for schools?

Further information

  • Changing Teachers, Changing Times, Professor Andy Hargreaves (Cassell, 1994).
  • Improving School Effectiveness, MacBeath & Mortimer, Open University Press, 2001 (arising from the Scottish Education Department School Effectiveness project).
  • Hong Kong Scotland School Improvement Partnership: http://hkssip.ltpss.edu.hk/wordpress/
  • Powerful Learning, Powerful Teaching and Powerful Schools, Hopkins, Journal of Educational Change, June 2000:


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