A Short Digression on School Culture

Anyone who has visited a variety of schools will no doubt be aware that schools often have a strikingly different ‘feel’. Often this can be picked up upon entering the building; sometimes it emerges over the course of the day.  In the best schools, there is always something distinctive about the ethos: the place feels right. However, it is very difficult indeed to define exactly what that ethos is and what contributes to it. Data analysts will point to social factors, postcode data, the ethnic mix; advocates of the ‘hero head’ school of leadership will say that it’s all down to the vision of the head; many will ascribe it to the caring and supportive attitude of the staff; some will put it down to the learning atmosphere and the ambition of the children.  I could go on.

Exactly what defines a strong ethos is impossible to describe but it is something we all recognize.  It is also interesting to note that schools which seem to be remarkably similar in terms of their location, their intake, their staffing and their general approach to schooling, can often feel very different when you step over the threshold.

If Teaching School Alliances are to operate successfully, an awareness of these differing cultures is important.  Schools are proud of their ethos and it is not something they would wish to lose.

However, good and outstanding schools all share a common desire to improve teaching and learning, and the very best schools have an intense focus on learning which seems to inform everything they do.  Often, the ethos of the school supports this drive and protects it from the vagaries of government policy and erratic finances.

David Hargreave’s Maturity Model outlines the stages an alliance needs to go through if it is to create strong trust, high social capital and improved outcomes, but it could be criticized for not focusing enough on the core function of schools, teaching and learning.  I propose a model which works alongside Hargreave’s model but which takes into account first the need to focus on learning and, second, the need to acknowledge the importance of individual school culture.

In simple terms, a good school has learning at the heart of what it does, it is a red hot core at the centre of operations. Each core is surrounded by a set of rings which comprise the day to day operation of the school, the space where the school’s ethos is formed.  It is here where the management and the day to day leadership takes place, and it here where school improvement and CPD is planned. 

In the diagram above, it is clear that learning is at the centre of the school; the rings represent all the other things which support learning.  In some schools, this focus will be intense, hence the glowing red; in others, it will be less powerful. At the start of an alliance, these cores exist independently, often having little contact.  The aim of an alliance to create interdependence through mutual support.

A successful teaching school alliance needs to begin to draw schools together via a focus on learning without the threat of damaging each one’s distinctive ethos.  By sharing good practice and through Joint Practice Development, aspects of their day to day operation will be shared and, hopefully, the focus on teaching and learning strengthened. The core will grow brighter, the rings will overlap and aspects of each school’s ethos will begin to be shared. 

As joint working grows, trust will develop and there will be high social capital. In the process of greater interaction, colleagues will begin to see similarities across the schools and realize that their school is not necessarily that different from other schools in the alliance.


Ultimately, through a common focus on learning, and increasing interaction, the ethos of each school will change slightly.  Although this is incredibly optimistic, it is possible that a common ethos will evolve.  Unlike an academy chain, which often seeks to impose a pedagogical model, this kind of development is organic and gradual. The relationship between the schools becomes symbiotic, and each gains from the others. The ultimate alliance model will look the same as the first, a red hot core with a common ethos:

This may be a long way off but it is something worth aiming for from the outset.