School ethos, vision and aspiration

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

Character, aspiration and school ethos are all linked. Matt Bawden advises on the importance of school ethos, how it links to aspiration, and how we must communicate it. He offers three guiding principles for using school ethos or vision to raise aspirations

It is possible that some students, parents, staff or others may not feel a part of your school’s ethos. If this is the case, they are unlikely to aspire to more than their own personal vision and values allow. We all have a world-view, and if ours does not push us to do more or be more then we will not gain more.

Those who feel marginalised may do so because they feel the school is not there for them, that the ethos is not inclusive, or because they feel the ethos people talk about, that would include them, is not the reality.

Ethos is often a bit of a nebulous beast. It can be very hard to express the school’s ethos in a few words, and yet we still aim to do so, adding mission statements, vision and values to our websites.

These summaries are expressions of what our schools stand for. They are ways of seeing how what we do is different from the school next to us, a marketing tool, a way of making a point about the purpose of education, or simply an expression of why we do what we do.

A few minutes spent searching online will show similar views of the purpose of school, the vision for the students and community, and the values schools seek to promote. Each school may dress things up differently, but on the whole they all seek to develop the whole student, for the good of the community, the families and the child.

The vision will be tempered by local circumstance, and may take into account employers, quirks of geography, or the aspirations of former generations of students. The typical school develops the vision in a variety of ways, but almost always this is via a broad and balanced curriculum, plenty of extra-curricular opportunities, and an emphasis on some form of moral or spiritual education. It may be impossible to achieve buy-in from everyone but the more authentic the ethos is the more it ought to include everyone.

Prospective parents, school inspectors, and applicants for jobs look at such vision statements. Each studies them in detail. Many will dwell over phrases or examples and make decisions based upon them.

However, do those of us who work in these schools ever really spend any time looking at them?

I wonder whether you could outline your own school’s vision, values or ethos as it appears on the school website, or – perhaps more importantly – could your students?

When considering your ethos as a living breathing thing, is it possible to see it at work in the school, helping to create a sense of drive and purpose for all concerned, or does it lie hidden in the policies and documents?

Bringing it to life can have real impact on the success of the school, and in driving aspirations for all. There are three guiding principles for using ethos to raise aspirations. When applying these principles we can benefit from applying two character traits. Each requires both empathy and compassion to make them work.

Empathy allows us to place ourselves in the situations of others. If some do not feel inspired by our ethos, values, vision or mission statement, we need to be able to see why. Asking may not be enough, sometimes we need to see with other’s eyes. Compassion then allows us to think through this empathic understanding and act in a way that will keep those who feel marginalised engaged.

The ethos is owned by everyone

In some schools the ethos has been passed down through the generations. The stated ethos might centre on a Latin phrase or a saying engraved on the school door. In others it might have been provided by an central multi-academy trust or a zealous board of governors.

However it was written it may not reflect the reality. To believe we own an ethos when we write it does not make it real. A school may say they are inclusive, but unless the teachers, parents and community are inclusive then the ethos is only so many words on a piece of paper.

Acknowledging that everyone has a say in the ethos of the school is the first step to making the ethos real, inclusive and aspirational. When something about the school’s ethos isn’t working it is everyone’s problem. When something goes right it is everyone’s celebration. The ethos can be improved – it just takes everyone to make it happen.

The ethos lives because we acknowledge it in our lives

Once we have acknowledged everyone has a part to play in creating an ethos we can begin to make it what we want it to be. In character education we often talk about development as being caught, sought or taught. The same can be said to be true of an ethos.

If we let the ethos develop on its own everyone catches it as they go through their daily school lives. This can be fine, even a good thing, as long as the ethos is positive and encourages aspiration for all.

However it is out of everyone’s control. It just happens to us. Some people may choose not to catch the positive vision and values that the school aspires to. When writing an ethos statement it becomes a matter of observing what is there already and writing it down. We do not influence the ethos, the ethos influences us.

If we seek out the ethos then we have a chance to make it what we want it to be. This sort of sought ethos can be manipulated by a coherent set of vision and values. As long as everyone buys in it is possible to look at what is already there, mold the best bits and scratch away at the bad, then we can shape the ethos in to something more.

As long as everyone buys in it becomes ours. So as we go through this stage we need to seek out ways to bring the ethos into everyone’s lives, thinking about all stakeholders, especially those who may not have bought in to it before.

This is where teaching ethos becomes important. If we all educate each other on the parts of the school’s ethos that we care about, and believe count, then we are all a part of its development.

The ethos matters because we make it matter

Teaching the ethos to each other makes the ethos matter. It becomes the thing we go to school for. When we walk through the doors we know what to expect and we feel a part of it. We can see the ethos on the walls, hear it in the voices of our friends, and feel it as we see the smile on a colleague’s face. It can help us through the tough times, and bolster us to drive forward when we might otherwise have stalled.

We live in times of want in education, and many would say our needs are seldom catered for. We seldom have enough to make ends meet, and this can be reflected in prioritising those areas more traditionally seen to lead to success at the end of key stage 4.

Taking the time to focus on our ethos might be seen as a luxury few can afford, and yet by spending time on it we build the foundations for success in all other areas.

Once we know why we learn, we learn. Once we see why there are rules, we follow them. Once we see why we should value each other, we create a community where we can aspire to succeed. Through all of this, we need to keep in mind those who previously may not have felt a part of the ethos and continue to review the inclusiveness of our new approach.

Some ways to begin

  • Ask a range of people (students, staff, parents, local shop owners) what they think the school stands for, making sure those who may have struggled to be included are a part of this initial stage. Then compare it to what is on the website.
  • Use some of these people to discuss what the ethos ought to be, in relation to happiness and future success. An ethos ought to raise our aspirations – and not just for the few.
  • Rewrite the ethos, vision and values statements in the light of these discussions, making everyone aware you have done it.
  • Publicise the revised ethos, looking for every opportunity to show how it is a key part of daily school life (in lessons, in the extra-curricular, at lunch and in the community).
  • When something happens that does not fit the new inclusive ethos, say so. Make it the reason for the punishment, the change to the curriculum plan, the introduction of a new club.
  • When something happens that shows the ethos working for all, celebrate it. Sometimes people need examples to spur them on to more.
  • 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. Follow @ourschoolday. To read his previous articles and SecEd’s other best practice relating to character education, visit


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