Meaningless words? How to build a genuine school ethos

Written by: James Handscombe | Published:
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Building a school ethos can so easily become an exercise in jargon and meaningless words. James Handscombe says that it is not until your ethos gets in the way of a hard decision that you know if you really believe in what you’re saying…

In an interview, I was once asked how the governors would be able to recognise that I had successfully developed a powerful school ethos.

“A school is like a tin of baked beans,” I said, theatrically.

“You know it’s a tin of beans because it says beans on the outside; you know it’s a tin of beans because when you take something out of it – it’s a bean; and you know it’s a tin of beans because when you put your finger in, it comes out covered in bean sauce.”

I didn’t get the job. I had to wait until I found a panel who shared my delight in the well-worked metaphor.

But I still think that the tin of beans is a good framework for understanding ethos – and therefore a good framework for thinking about the work of building a good ethos.

Three elements of ethos

For me, ethos is a combination of three aspects of a school all working together.

First, what the school says about itself, how it is presented to the world, how it is seen in its community and how its branding looks is like the label on the front of the tin: it is absolutely not the beans itself (an extremely rookie error in student cookery), but without it you are left wondering, not sure what to expect.

Second, what is more essential is what the school does: each decision made by the senior team, each policy, each slot in the timetable and each deviation from it, should be a bean – it should be in line with and support the school ethos. If what comes out of the school is different from the label that’s on the front then staff and students will be confused (but will, eventually, conclude that the ethos is the one that is performed, not the one that is proclaimed).

Finally, subtly, ethos is more than concrete decisions and published mottos, it is something that permeates the building, that holds together the community: like the tomato sauce that coats the beans, ethos is sticky – it lies in every conversation, every interaction, every email, every display, and when you leave the school you find it is adhered to you; you find that you think about things a little differently because you visited.

Unpicking jargon

To create a good ethos you must articulate it clearly (which, inevitably, will be much harder than simply writing “BEANS” on the side of a tin); you must let it inform all the decision-making and fight against anything that is easy and expedient but out of ethos. And you must bring the whole community with you to show how it can be lived.

The challenge of articulation is bringing depth of meaning to words and phrases that might be jargon. Let’s take “Ambition” – a fine plank of any school’s ethos, but on its own potentially vacuous – or, worse, malevolent.

Do we value unrealistic dreaming or single-minded self-interest, or have we gone beyond the slogan to unpick the nuance of the word?

For me, ambition is not simply a goal – it is an understanding of the work that needs to be done to achieve it and a commitment to doing that work. This deals with the dreaming but not the self-interest: ambition is at best an ethically neutral quality; another word is needed to balance it – kindness, for example – although this then begs the question of what is meant by “kindness”. Is it different from goodness or niceness or gentleness, or is it a synonym for one or more of these?

Making your commitments

Words need to be fleshed out and used and discussed – when the language of the ethos is the language of the school the community can delight in finding new applications and nuances for those pieces of jargon.

Ethos words can look good on a prospectus, they can form the basis of many an assembly (in fact they should do both of these things), but it is not until they get in the way of a hard decision that you know if you really believe in what you are saying.

It is easy to say that you are a school of ambition until you are faced with the challenge of meeting a goal that has suddenly got harder. The pragmatic, expedient solution is to quietly shelve the project, but this means compromising the principles.

It is easy to say that you are a school that believes in the importance of social and emotional learning until the final exams approach and the temptation is to cancel sports clubs to put on extra intervention.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being pragmatic, nothing wrong with directing precious time to where it will have the biggest impact – the hardest ethos questions come when you are choosing where to put limited resources – but it is these decisions that show what a school really values. It is important, then, to choose the words of the ethos statements carefully: to make commitments that you are prepared to live by.

A question of time

Earlier I described ethos words as jargon, which I do not mean negatively. Jargon can be words and phrases that have specific meaning to a particular community that they don’t carry in the wider world.

Schools should be places of jargon – if we speak of “Ambition” in the ethos then we should have a shared understanding and this sometimes confuses strangers. This is part of the day-to-day working of the school and a way in which ethos can become pervasive and unavoidable.

A headteacher I once worked for wanted to make respect part of the school ethos (having taken over a school where he thought it was missing). He walked the corridors and whenever he had the opportunity held the door open for students to pass through.

Naturally they responded by holding the doors open for him and delighted in his courteous thanks. Other staff followed his lead and, over time, the school became a place where students and staff held the doors for each other, and said thank you.

Twenty years (and two headteachers) later it is still that kind of place. Building an ethos that permeates a school is about time, it is about reinforcement, it is about ideas percolating through a semi-permeable medium, and it is about making the small interactions as in-ethos as the big ones.

A powerful school ethos is not something that just happens; it is not a question of getting a consultant to pick the right words or design the right logo; it is worked through and reasoned carefully, it is forged in the tight places of hard decisions, it is lived by the leaders and by the community.

It is a lot of work, but a school that is built on ethos is one that knows what it stands for and therefore one that stands when the wild winds blow; a school that is built on ethos is a community rather than just a building; a school that is built on ethos is an organisation in which every teacher, student, receptionist and technician knows how to respond to the challenges that face them, where their guts tell them what the policy will say before they read it, where they make the right decisions even when they have not been told specifically what to do.

  • James Handscombe has worked in schools in South Wales, Australia and south-east London before becoming the founding principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form in 2014. His new book A School Built on Ethos: Ideas, assemblies and hard-won wisdom (Crown House Publishing, 2021) takes readers through the school’s development and illustrates its journey by sharing a selection of the assemblies that have underpinned and elucidated its ethos. Visit

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