Barber describes the exhaustion of relentlessly applying pressure on a reluctant civil service in trying to drive improvement. That will be a familiar feeling to any teacher trying to bring about improvement in their class – it takes vast reserves of energy. Just as soon as an improvement appears in one place, a problem crops up in another. Take your foot of the pedal for an instant and the class/organisation backslides.
What is missing here? Culture! A culture of success, of collaboration, of listening, and of independent learning. Good schools have it – that feeling that everyone is pushing in the same direction, for the same goal.
I heartily agree with Sir Michael that other key ingredients are clear vision and purpose, simple goals with clear measurements of progress, and being held rigorously to account. However, it seems to me that there is no point building an organisation that will only drive in the right direction when you’re holding the whip. You want an organisation where everyone passionately believes in the vision, and will strive to achieve it. To coin Jim Collins‘ analogy, a flywheel is much more likely to gather momentum if everyone pushes it than if one or two people are pushing really hard and everyone else is dragging.
To be a great school, I think the four central pillars must be include this aspect of culture. If I was to have a stab at summarising these interesting books I’ve been reading and list the qualities required then it would be something like these four key principles:
- Culture – has every teacher bought in to the school vision? Do they feel supported? Are they free to innovate, without fear of retribution, but with careful support, enthusiasm and monitoring from their peers? Is every member of staff pulling in the same direction, reinforcing values, challenging those that don’t comply, and actively seeking ways in which to make new gains?
- Information – Does every teacher have the necessary information, at classroom and student level, with which to measure the success of their teaching? Do the senior management use this data to offer both praise and support, where necessary? Can the pastoral team spot trends happening in multiple subjects suggesting a problem with a student or group? Is variation in achievement across the school made visible?
- Collaboration – Does every teacher and leader invite the opinions of colleagues, and feel able to lay difficulties out in the open without fear of being undermined? Do opportunities (time, money, space) exist for teachers to work in small professional learning groups to carry out research and create a positive evidence-led improvement cycle?
- Leadership – Is there a clear vision of what the school is about? Are resources being (demonstrably) spent on the priorities of the whole school, and does the public praise reflect these priorities? Does the leadership group challenge problems head-on without making excuses? Do staff feel able to contribute ideas, and take responsibility? Do they create systems which are self-sustaining and self-improving, instead of those that require constant decisions from the top?
I’m sure this is only the tip of the iceberg, and this is my first attempt to lay out my thoughts on this. I would very much welcome any feedback, criticism or praise! I would like to develop some illustration or diagram that represents the place of culture within an organisation, and I would love to hear ways in which positive culture can be nurtured and supported.