Developing a culture to drive standards

Written by: HTU | Published:

How can a headteacher create a school culture and ethos that drives standards? Brenda Bigland offers her advice

It is my belief that all schools can work towards creating a team ethos with a little innovation, clear strategies and firm leadership.

Some time ago, the White Paper, Schools Achieving Success, stated: “We are clear that teaching must be, and feel, a manageable job as well as a valued and important profession. Teachers are at the heart of the continuing drive to raise standards.

"Solutions must be practical and sustainable. Schools should develop a strong mission to succeed, a culture of collaboration between schools … so that they can innovate and learn from each other.”

However much they change the terminology, the message has stayed the same. If we are to create a culture and ethos which drive standards then these simple statements must be the driving force for us all.

When I started at my last school we had a team who knew each other; some had worked together for almost 25 years. The staff worked hard but there were few cohesive policies and falling rolls, and therefore children were taught in some cases in vertically grouped classes.

We dealt with the usual issues of low budgets, a lower than national average entry profile and recruitment issues, because the area within which the school was sited, although recognised as a challenging area in the immediate catchment of the school, also had very high priced housing.

Where does a head start when he or she is trying to establish a new culture and ethos within the organisation? What are the strategies and systems which aid school cohesion and which ensure that each individual within the community of the school achieves his or her personal best?

I would start by ensuring that you, as the headteacher, role-model leadership. Lead by example. Encourage risk-taking within a secure environment. This means encouraging leadership and for a little time doing the job with your staff. They will learn through your example and be better leaders as a result.

Recognise and encourage early leadership potential as it allows succession planning and co-ownership. It is not necessary for someone to have a number of years’ experience before he or she can lead. I have had young NQTs who were outstanding practitioners, good time-managers and who were ready for leadership.

As a head you need to both challenge and support, then give credit for each success. When someone begins their leadership journey, the quickest way to douse the flame is not to recognise and celebrate small steps or to make demands which are above and beyond the individual’s growing capacity for leadership.

Be aware of your school environment and keep morale high. Your staff will give more if they feel “cherished”. An old-fashioned word which does not mean that you mollycoddle them. Staff who enjoy their work environment, feel supported and yet challenged, will want to come to work. Staff absence will be reduced and staff morale will be boosted as staff work together and support each other.

Encourage a professional dialogue both between staff and yourself and between the staff themselves. Keep the environment stimulating. Maintain an open-door policy so that no member of the team feels that they are on the outside looking in. When offering training, ensure it is provided for all within the community of the school.

Why do we always think that as soon as we look at the standards issue we need to train teachers only? My teaching assistants were “professional partners on learning”, and to make sure that this was not in name only, we needed to include them in any curriculum training, giving them further training in areas such as IT and empowering them to work effectively.

NQTs need to be trained prior to the new term in September. This means you ask them to be in the school for a week towards the end of the summer term (I would pay transport and accommodation costs). Senior teachers can then train new staff in planning, assessment, record-keeping, marking, classroom organisation and management, and SEN and disabilities. Staff also get the chance to meet new colleagues and begin bonding, ensuring they are already a part of the team and can hit the ground running in September.

As leadership is identified it needs to be fostered and grown. Co-ordinator training can be done in-house and enhanced by a visit to a school where there is good practice.

Senior leadership teams need to have continued training including to take them to their own headship if that is what they wish to do. Some senior teachers will want to continue in the classroom and this too can be developed allowing them opportunities to perhaps undertake school-based research.

I believe and have seen that value and belief in the team brings raised standards, strong cohesive policies and practice, empowerment for staff to lead, development and recognition of management potential, mutual respect and strong team ethos.

Other strategies which support the development of a team ethos are to ensure that staff roles and responsibilities support each other. One member of staff acts as lead co-ordinator for a subject, a second staff member shadows and supports the lead. If at all possible this should be one from key stage 1 and one from key stage 2.

Elsewhere, ensure that at least two performance management targets each year are common to all and support whole-school improvement and the headteacher can give a clear lead by highlighting the focus for the year and the term within his or her own targets.

Promote work shadowing too. In education no man or woman should be an island. We learn with and from each other and best practice should never be kept as a trade secret within one organisation.

The culture and ethos of the school can also be affected adversely by parent voice. They are a part of the community of the school. Have you kept them informed so that they can be effective and supportive as partners in their child’s education?

Other key questions for parents include: What can you do to ensure that they feel a part of the organisation? Is communication strong? Do all teachers have emails so that parents can contact them with non-urgent enquiries? Is there a system where parents get a response to problems within 24 hours? Is your website informative? Do you give them curriculum information and support so that they are empowered to work with their children with confidence?

• Brenda Bigland has been a headteacher for more than 20 years in both the independent and state sector. Her last headship was of Lent Rise School in Buckinghamshire. She now runs an educational consultancy called Ask Brenda, which offers confidential advice, mentoring, training and CPD. Visit

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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