Culture: Do you know what you believe in?

Written by: Katharine Birbalsingh | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

If you cannot decide what your beliefs are, you should give up trying to create a culture in your school. Katharine Birbalsingh explains how they went about creating the culture of Michaela Community School


When visitors come to Michaela they often comment on our distinctive school culture. As they walk through the corridors, observe lessons and speak with staff, it is clear to them that the culture in our school is quite different from schools elsewhere.

They often ask me how they can achieve a similar culture in their own schools. But, as I speak with them, it quickly becomes clear that one of the reasons why they struggle is because they are not sure what a “culture” really is.

I completely understand why this happens: we have repeated the word so often that we now do not know what it really means.

To get a better sense of what culture really means I like to think of a related word – horticulture. In horticulture, seeds are planted in the ground and watered so that they can grow into flowers. The grower ensures that the crop has just the right amount of sunlight and that the soil and the surrounding environment is perfectly suited to the flower’s growth.

Culture, then, is the environment you create to allow something to flourish. And this is as true for a school leader as it is for someone growing flowers.

The difference is only what we cultivate: at Michaela, we are not trying to create an environment in which a seed can develop into a flower, but a community in which children can flourish into capable, creative and independent young citizens.

And, in the same way that the flower grower uses her authority to adjust the right amount of sunlight, or to water the soil, or to direct the developing flower, we know it is our responsibility to cultivate the environment in our school. We know that our community can only flourish if its leaders use their authority to shape the culture they hope to see.

This is a rather unfashionable idea in many educational circles. Many school leaders and educationalists prefer the idea that, rather than moulding or directing the pupils or staff in your care, you should allow them to grow “naturally” or “authentically” with as little external direction as possible. I am afraid to say that, if this is your view, you will never create a distinctive school culture at all.

If you want to create a culture, you first have to ask yourself what you believe. At Michaela, we have thought very hard about what we believe. We believe in knowledge. We believe that teachers should teach from the front of the class. We believe that the teacher being an authority is a good thing. We believe in personal responsibility. We believe in gratitude over entitlement. We believe that it is good for children to love their country. And we believe that all of these beliefs are worth fighting for.

If you do not believe in beliefs, or you cannot decide what your beliefs are, you should give up trying to create a culture. You will never achieve it.

But once you have decided what you believe in, you have taken the first step. Now you can think about how you are going to communicate these beliefs to your community. We have had to write a whole book to explain how we do this, but I will try and give you a few examples.

First, we want a culture of gratitude. The way we achieve this is through a ritual known as “appreciations”. This happens at the end of lunch and all pupils know that they can be called upon to stand up and say thank you to someone who has gone out of their way to help them.

This might be a teacher, a family member or even a bus driver who stopped just a little bit longer that morning to let them on. Staff take part in this, too, sometimes giving appreciations to other staff who might have helped them with their printing!

Second, we want our pupils to feel in control of their destinies, even if we acknowledge the challenges that many of them will face. For this reason, we have made William Ernest Henley’s Invictus an unofficial school poem and we expect staff and pupils to learn it by heart. By the end of their first week, all of our year 7s can be heard bellowing out the final lines: “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”

Lastly, we want our pupils to feel that they are part of the bigger communities of England and Britain. We do this by singing national songs in assemblies and also by standing as a school for the Two Minute Silence. But we also create this culture in more subtle ways: we encourage staff and pupils to talk about “our” country rather than “your” or “the” country. Over time, these little actions become habits, our habits become our character and then talking about “our country” is not just something that a Michaela pupil does. It is who they are.

Creating a culture is not easy. It takes courage and real intellectual honesty to work out what it is that you stand for. But once you have decided, you can set about communicating that vision to your community – the language you will use, the rituals you will enact and the way you will expect staff and pupils to behave. But, if you can do that, you will have a distinctive school culture of your own.


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