The Power of School Culture

Raiha MalikNews & Events

At Repton, our commitment to developing and embedding our unique school culture is of paramount importance, it is actually the number one priority on our school improvement plan. This is not because we have a negative culture or are concerned about the culture, it is because we recognise that an organisation’s culture sets the foundation for everything else they do. The culture within our school community shapes the overall educational experience, our students’ aspirations and dreams, the well-being of our students and staff, the behavioral expectations, and our respectful communication, in both circumstances of agreement and disagreement.

This year, we have dedicated considerable effort to understanding what culture is and what is specific and unique to the culture we have developed at Repton. Our exploration of culture, rooted in Edgar Schein’s three levels of culture theory, has allowed us to appreciate the significance of our distinctive culture and how it enriches the lives of those within our school. We have defined culture as the sets of conscious and unconscious expectations and behaviours that guide how people within our school think and act.

Schools are more than just places of learning; they are communities where students, teachers, and families spend a significant part of their lives. We often refer to our community as our “Repton family” or, as one colleague recently described it to me, as our “tribe”.  In an international environment, this is even more pronounced since we rely on each other for family-like support.

Before delving into the importance of school culture, it’s crucial to grasp the foundation of organisational culture theory developed by Edgar Schein. Schein proposed a framework with three levels of culture, each playing a vital role in shaping an organisation’s identity and behavior:

  1. Artifacts and Symbols (Visible Culture): The outermost layer includes the visible aspects of culture, such as the physical environment, dress code, rituals, and symbols. In schools, this could be represented by uniforms, the layout of classrooms, and traditional events like assemblies and graduation ceremonies.
  1. Espoused Beliefs and Values (Espoused Culture): This level goes deeper, exploring the shared beliefs, values, and norms that a school community upholds. For example, if the school values inclusivity, diversity, and open communication, these principles should be reflected in the language used, mission statements, and written policies.
  1. Basic Assumptions (Underlying Culture): The core of an organization’s culture, these are the unspoken and often unconscious beliefs and assumptions that guide behavior. In a school setting, this could involve fundamental attitudes towards education, student-teacher relationships, and the role of the school in society.

Empathetic leadership moulds a school’s culture. It is marked by the ability to view staff as individuals before educators, exemplify compassion, and a genuine willingness to listen. This compassionate and attentive leadership style is a crucial factor in the construction of a thriving and positive school culture. Leaders who demonstrate empathy create an environment where teachers and staff feel valued, understood, and supported. Empathetic leaders inspire trust and motivate their teams, leading to increased job satisfaction and improved morale among the school staff. This, in turn, contributes to a more positive and collaborative school culture.

A school’s culture influences every aspect of its function, from teaching and learning to staff relationships and student outcomes. I have outlined some of the main benefits we see at Repton;

  1. Improved Learning Outcomes: Students in a positive, psychologically safe environment are more likely to engage actively in their learning, leading to improved academic performance and greater overall success.
  1. Psychological Safety for Well-Being: Psychological safety, as defined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, is the belief that one can express their thoughts, ideas, and concerns without fear of retribution. In a school, fostering psychological safety is paramount for the well-being of both students and staff. When students feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to participate in class, ask questions, and engage in learning activities. For educators, a safe and supportive environment allows them to experiment with teaching methods, collaborate with colleagues, and seek professional growth without fear of criticism.
  2. Staff Retention and Recruitment: A positive school culture significantly influences staff retention and recruitment. In a welcoming and supportive culture, teachers are more likely to stay at their current school, reducing turnover rates and maintaining institutional knowledge. Furthermore, such schools become attractive to prospective educators seeking a supportive and fulfilling workplace.Schools with strong cultures often build reputations that attract high-quality teachers and staff, enhancing the overall educational experience and success of students.
  3. Enhanced Community Involvement: A school with a positive culture is more likely to engage with the broader community, building partnerships and resources to benefit both students and educators.
  4. Increased Innovation: A culture that values open communication and encourages creativity fosters an environment for educational risk-taking, where new teaching and learning methods and solutions can be explored and implemented.

Recognising, rewarding and reinforcing people-centered, inclusive and inspiring school culture should be at the forefront of school leaders’ agenda for elevating the students’, teachers’ and broader tribe’s experience. In my experience, schools with distinctive  and intentional cultures create exceptional learning experiences that leave a lasting, positive impact on students and transform a school into a a vibrant and engaging place of intellectual curiosity and aspiration.

Mr. Steven Lupton

Principal, Repton Abu Dhabi