School culture & values: An unwritten ethos

Written by: Bill Holledge | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Do you use your school’s values? Or are they positive-sounding aphorisms which are rarely dusted off in the heat of battle? Bill Holledge considers how we create and use school values and discusses the Paradigm Trust’s ‘Unwritten Ethos’


Every organisation has a distinct ethos. Many organisations have written values. With some organisations there is good alignment between their “official” values and the lived experience of their ethos.

But that isn’t always the case and I suspect many readers could give examples of a time when they have experienced a disconnect between the two.

Paradigm Trust has a vision statement: “To develop and sustain great schools where we can make the biggest difference to pupils.” And values: “Integrity. Community. Excellence.” And I genuinely think that we try very hard to live by those.

We have very high expectations throughout the Paradigm curriculum and are committed to continually developing and improving it, working with nationally respected experts who we know will challenge us to be even better.

We offer accredited courses for our staff to develop as leaders and provide very regular subject knowledge training across all curriculum disciplines. Children in our schools can take advantage of high-quality instrumental music lessons, regardless of their ability to pay. There are many more examples I could cite.

I can also think of many times when faced with one of those “tough” decisions that seem to be required all too regularly, where I and colleagues have, while thinking aloud, uttered versions of: “How do our values apply to this situation?”

Often the reality is that you know instinctively how the organisational values apply – and there is a fairly clear “right” thing to do, but it isn’t necessarily the most palatable option.

In that situation I think values act as a really helpful backstop – they almost force you to head in a particular direction because otherwise you would be required to confront a “values failure”, either in the privacy of your own headspace or more publicly in the eyes of colleagues who you need to lead (or indeed with your wider school community).

However, values can also be fertile territory for vacuous abstraction – positive-sounding aphorisms which are rarely dusted off in the heat of battle.


An Unwritten Ethos

A few years ago, I was preparing to talk to Paradigm’s most recent set of new recruits as part of their induction. I wanted to make sure I gave them a good grounding in what it meant to be part of Paradigm.

I instinctively reached for our values – and clearly that was the right thing to do. But I also had a sense that our formal values only went so far in terms of speaking to the specifically idiosyncratic qualities of the organisation – and I was frustrated that I couldn’t find a way to communicate that other than expecting new recruits to “get to know it” after their first three years (decades?) in the organisation.

I suppose, on the flip side, the fact I was confident that new colleagues would experience the Paradigm “je ne sais quoi” for themselves is a positive – it suggests that what I was struggling to articulate did, in fact, exist beyond “mere” words.

Anyway, I cast around for a way to convey that “hidden” culture and came up with a document that has become known as our “unwritten ethos” – a distillation of what you may not realise about Paradigm before you are in it.

Some of this will be in common with other organisations, some of this probably won’t be – but staff need to get their head round it and feel positively about it if they are going to flourish within the trust.

To some extent, we deliberately set ourselves up to fail with the unwritten ethos. We are explicitly inviting colleagues to call-out senior staff (including and particularly me) who get “above themselves” and “high and mighty” by including statements such as: “We’re not into hierarchies/status – if a job needs doing, we all get stuck in, however unpleasant and irrespective of role.”

But I think that is a good thing – it is both a statement of intent and ambition and an organisational safety net.

I do believe that Paradigm staff live up to both our “formal” values and our unwritten ethos – for example when on-site testing was required at Ipswich Academy all senior staff and the central team, including the CEO, were fully involved.

To date, we haven’t chosen to publicise our unwritten ethos as part of recruitment efforts, but I think that is the next obvious step. If we do think that this ethos is what makes us Paradigm, and we do think that staff need to sign up to that to be effective, it seems perverse not to share it at the point where prospective hires are evaluating us.

Do we run the risk of scaring people off because we sound too preachy? Well, maybe, yes – but then perhaps they are not a good fit for Paradigm anyway. Maybe it all comes back to our “official” values – the first of which is integrity. This takes many forms, such as spending thousands of pounds on lockdown laptops over and above those provided by the government, so every pupil could participate in remote learning. Or it is investing in private mental health support, therapy, and counselling for pupils, so they have quick access to the help they need.

So here, let me give you a taste of the points of our unwritten ethos:

  • We serve children – everyone is a servant leader.
  • We check our ego at the door – the children are the stars, not us.
  • We do our best to be on time (being late is a power game).
  • We are not into hierarchies/status – if a job needs doing, we all get stuck in, however unpleasant and irrespective of role.
  • We use time effectively – our own and that of others.
  • We are positive – optimistic. We look for solutions and we believe that they can be found.
  • We look for the best in people. You get what you expect – expect the best and you are rarely disappointed.
  • We give feedback directly and precisely and warmly.
  • We are humble and we get things wrong – and that is okay. We recognise when something has gone wrong, we say sorry, we fix it, and we move on. We don’t beat ourselves or others up and there is no room for paranoia.
  • We are polite – we say thank you.
  • We are kind (but that does not equal weak).

In essence though, all of this can be boiled down to the following: Doing the right thing even when no one is watching.

  • Bill Holledge is the CEO of Paradigm Trust, a not-for-profit educational trust with schools in Ipswich and Tower Hamlets that are free and open to all. Bill has more than 20 years’ experience of working with schools, both primary and secondary, including as teacher, headteacher, chair of governors and trustee. Visit https://paradigmtrust.org/


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