Developing a Positive School Culture

Jonathan Smart

What practical steps can educational leaders take to develop a positive school culture?

What makes a positive school culture?

At Excelsior Multi-Academy Trust, we know that for our school community and students to be successful, we need excellent teachers as we believe wholeheartedly that excellent teachers change lives. We know that the way to improve student learning in its broadest sense is to ensure we have an excellent teacher for every child. Something that has been recently recognised by the Government in the latest education white paper. The question is, how do we do this? Our experience was that providing excellent CPD wasn't necessarily enough. Yes, we need to continue to look at how we deliver CPD to gain maximum impact, but that alone will not get us where we want to be. What is it that makes school leaders, businesses, and sports teams successful? There must be something that is consistent across all successful organisations that are key ingredients to development leading to measurable success. This article identifies our journey of enlightenment and gives a brief insight into what we believe is the golden thread of success. 

Identifying the dimensions of school culture

We were aware as experienced leaders that culture was and is very important, however, we didn't know that this could be designed and codified. Our work with a business coach opened up our eyes to the world of organisational culture and the importance this has on success.

Our cultural journey started 3 years ago when we were creating our long-term strategic development plan for our MAT. We identified a 10 and 3-year vision for the MAT that, if achieved, would ensure our student body, staff and communities were receiving a world-class education. To support us in this process, we looked toward business rather than education. We were convinced that to be more strategic, we needed to research, study and read about the best businesses and what they were doing to develop and grow. Specifically, we wanted to learn about the strategies they were using to achieve this growth. Most importantly, how did organisations excite their employees to be part of something bigger than themselves? The task for would then be to translate this to the world of education.

As a result of our study we created a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) (Jim Collins- Built To Last- Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, 1994), our exciting, challenging and aspirational 10 year plan. Our BHAG is 'to be world-famous for innovative education'. Quite a scary goal. To help us work towards this and make it more achievable we also identified our 3 year Hairy Audacious Goal which was 'to be nationally recognised for innovative education.'  Now we had a clear outcome-based vision so our attention turned to what was needed to achieve the 3 year goal. This involved us working with a business coach who exposed us to some fabulous business tools that allowed us to identify 3 key areas of development that would help us achieve the 3 year goal. These are called our swim lanes, these are to:

1. Develop and demonstrate innovation 

2. Develop our reputation locally and nationally 

3. Become the employer of choice so we attract, recruit and retain the best staff

Whilst culture runs throughout all of these strands it was strand 3 that led us into the wonderful world of organisational culture. Interestingly, there was very little research about positive school culture or in the education world. There was however, an abundance of it in the corporate world. Our central staff were hungry to achieve our plan and embraced the importance of culture development.

Model of school culture
Model of school culture

The conceptualisation of School Culture

One of the key challenges we had before setting, changing and improving our culture was to first describe what culture was in its broadest sense. There are a number of models and explanations that have been developed to describe and define culture.

Daniel Coyle 'The Culture Code- The secrets of highly effective groups' 2018, identified culture as 'a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. Its not something you are. It's something you do.' Coyle looked at the cultures of high-performing organisations to see what made them tick. What was it that leads to greater performance compared to others.

Gary Ridge, CEO of WD40 company, focuses on culture relentlessly and specifically the empowerment of the staff who work for him. He identified culture by saying 'Imagine a place where you go to work everyday, you make a contribution to something bigger than yourself, you learn something new, you feel safe and are set free by a compelling set of values, and you go home happy. He believes passionately that it is the central role of leaders to create the environment to allow this to happen. 

Johnson and Scholes (1992) created the culture web. They identified a number of linked elements that make up culture. The tool doesn't specify any one best culture but does argue that by analysing each element, you can decide if the current approach helps to deliver the vision and mission or hinder it. The diagram below shows the culture web. 

Developing a positive School Culture
Developing a positive School Culture

Gustavo Razzetti (Fearless culture), after 2 decades in the marketing and innovation consulting world, realised that most organisations don't lack ideas, talent or resources. Instead, they lack a conducive culture where staff are encouraged to collaborate, take initiative, and experiment beyond the restrictions of authority. It is his Culture Design Canvass that we used to support us in our culture development journey.

Culture and how a school functions

The short answer is most definitely yes. There is more and more evidence that culture is crucial to the success of any organisation. Peter Drucker, the legendary management consultant and writer said, ' Culture eats strategy for breakfast.' Drucker wasn't saying that strategy isn't important- rather that a powerful and empowering culture was a surer route to organisational success.  Kevin Oakes, author of Culture Renovation 2021, identifies that culture is the underlying fabric that holds an organisation together. When the fabric is strong, groups can endure major challenges and thrive during better times. If the fabric is tattered, groups may manage to get by, but employees, projects, and clients fall through the gap. The research into successful companies shows that culture is crucial to their success. Furthermore, the focus within culture is people or staff. Organisations, and in our case school communities, are successful because of the people within them and how these people are managed, empowered and encouraged to be great. 

At Excelsior, we wholeheartedly believe that creating a strong empowering culture for the MAT and subsequently a strong empowering culture for our primary and secondary schools is crucial to our success and, most importantly, the success of our students. We recognised and believed that if we created a culture of empowerment, then we would have happy staff and more productive staff. When this is coupled with a clear vision and strategy, we were convinced that our success will be inevitable. The importance of treating employees well wasn't lost on some of our greatest ever minds. Aristotle (Greek philosopher 384-322 BC) said ' pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.' something that we really buy into. Gary Ridge provides an algorithm for the power of staff engaged staff and clear strategy. 

He identifies that if you consider strategy alongside the will of the people/employee engagement to deliver the strategy, this gives us an equation that puts value on the development of culture. 

For example,  if your organisation gives itself 80/100 for strategy and then scores the will of the people at 20/100 then you have 80 x 20 = 1600 of performance. Whereas if the same company has 80/100 for strategy but 60/100 for will of the people/engagement, you get 80x60 = 4800 of performance.

We found this enlightening and really appreciated this simple equation. This interesting way of looking at culture and its effect on organisational performance was for us, something we had to drive for. We felt that this provided us with a clear steer to ensure we looked after our workforce so that they would perform better directly benefitting our staff and students

With all this learning and information that clearly showed the power of positive school culture on the outcomes of an organisation, we set about creating a culture for success. 

Our Model of School Culture

We had identified that being the employer of choice was a key strand of our strategy. The question was, what does this look like and how can we achieve it? After further research, we created our people strategy, People Strategy – Excelsior MAT .  We recognised that a people strategy as something more common in business than in education. However, we felt this was a crucial strategic plan that would move us forward to our 3-year goal.

Our people strategy identified four key areas of development over a five year period, all of them focused completely on our people. These are:

  • To attract, recruit and retain the best people through innovation, aspiration and equality
  • To develop and grow talent
  • To lead by example
  • To create the right environment

To be able to achieve each and every one of these goals we needed to create a culture that not only supported their delivery but also drove their success. We knew we had to create and design an organisational and positive school culture that ensured we could effectively deliver school improvement through our vision and values. Our business coach introduced us to the 'Culture Design Canvass' (Gustavo Rassetti), a tool that businesses use all over the world to intentionally design the culture they want for their own organisation.  

It is important to note that there is a set order that you tackle each section which can be found at the following link. How to Use The Culture Design Canvas - A Culture Mapping Tool | By Gustavo Razzetti (fearlessculture.design)

We felt that this tool would be an excellent way of co-constructing the culture of the future. (It helped that large multinational companies such as Netflix, Zappos and Air B&B also used it. If its good enough for them it must be good enough for us.) We studied how the tool should be used (please see the link above) and set about starting with our MAT culture. The culture we wanted and needed from the central MAT team.

We introduced it to our senior leaders within the MAT central team. We followed the guidance provided carefully to produce what we believed to be a positive culture to drive success. As a team we all agreed that their was so much power in the discussion and conversation that took place, as we discussed each section being very deliberate about the wording and phrases we used. It took us approximately 20 hours to complete. Whilst this may seem like a luxury to many school leaders, I can only encourage leaders to do it as the end results are fabulous. Our discussions were purposeful, often passionate and sometimes fiery. We had particularly fiery and productive conversations regarding the psychological safety and behaviours sections. Whilst it took a long time to get to our first draft, it was a very rewarding process, and our finished culture canvass is something we continually refer back to to make sure our decision-making falls in line with the culture we are looking to create. If it doesn't, we think again!

Following the construction of the MAT canvass we then supported school leaders in going through the same process. Headteachers led on the co-construction of their own design canvass and included all staff throughout the school. Everyone had the opportunity to input in to their culture design process. The process allowed staff to own their positive school culture and subsequently hold each other to account for it.

Now each of our schools and the central team have a culture canvass board where staff can regularly see what was agreed as a staff. Leadership decisions are taken in line with the culture we are trying to create. It also serves as an accountability tool owned and governed by all. In order to ensure culture remains at the forefront of everything we do we select a section each half term to focus upon. We are intentional with the aspects, looking at how can we ensure we are delivering on what we identified as important to our culture. We have focused particularly on psychological safety and what this looks like in each of our schools and how we can promote it so that all staff feel confident to raise concerns without the fear of repercussion. We have done this through the development of trust using our approach to performance management and professional development. It has taken a while and there is still work to do but we feel staff trust our approach to be one of support and development. 

The culture canvass is regularly reviewed as we explore the sections and ask ourselves questions about how good we are at this, what is going well, and what needs to be better.

The use of the Culture Design Canvass has been an instrumental and pivotal part of developing every aspect of school life. However, creating and reviewing is not enough. We have introduced a raft of systems, procedures and initiatives that have helped us improve staff happiness, engagement and productivity and deliver the culture we want and need. 

School Culture Design Framework
School Culture Design Framework

Impact on teaching staff and student learning

It is important for us as a trust that we are able to measure the impact our work is having. We fully believe that culture is the key to success but we have to be able to evidence that a positive culture is helping our teachers to be the best they can be, our students to be demonstrating improved global outcomes and our schools to be thriving learning communities.  It is easy to measure student outcomes but it can be a little more problematic when trying to measure staff happiness, engagement and productivity. It is harder to measure the actual culture itself. However, we have some key indicators that help us do this. 

We use Friday Pulse, a weekly staff happiness measurement. Each week staff are able to identify how happy they are, thank colleagues, celebrate successes, identify frustrations and suggest ideas of improvement. When we implemented Friday Pulse our happiness score was 57, over time this has increased and for 7 out of the last 9 weeks our score has been over 70 indicating a level of happiness we want to achieve. Our scores when compared to other organisations, are also very positive. The table below is taken from Friday Pulse and shows our scores compared to other organisations.  

The table above clearly shows that our scores are above all other comparators, something we are extremely proud of. This was not the case when we began measuring staff happiness almost 2 years ago. For us it shows that our intentional practice has led to happier staff which inevitably has led to greater productivity and buy-in across the trust at all levels.

In order to measure staff engagement, we also sent out a quick questionnaire to staff to measure how many of our staff would refer us to others. This measure is widely used in business and is known as the Net Promoter Score. It was first developed in 1993 by Fred Reichheld and is now widely used across the world.

We sent out a simplified Net Promoter Score questionnaire looking specifically if our staff would refer Excelsior as a good place to work. The results were excellent. We ended up with a Net promoter Score of 87. This is way higher than the average. In business, anything above 30 is seen as a good score so to achieve 87 is something to be proud of.  It is too early to see the impact of this work on pupil outcomes but we will be able to judge this is in the coming months and years. 

In conclusion, we would recommend any MAT leader or Head Teacher to really focus on culture as the main driver to success, and if anyone would like to discuss this further or explore some of the finer details, please do not hesitate to contact me at j.smart@excelsiormat.org