School Culture


Edited by: Jon Prosser

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    General Editor's Preface

    This is an important book for the field of Educational Management, unmasking the phantom who infuses the operas of school and college life. In exploring different aspects of what might be understood by culture in educational organisations, it makes readers keenly aware that this entity is shaped and formed from many levels and sites inside and outside schools. As this book argues, pupils are among the actors within a school who help to shape its culture. They are not merely passive baskets to be filled with bread neatly wrapped in National Curriculum packages.

    Part of this debate is about how external values and attitudes, from levels of public policy to levels of popular mythology, infiltrate and influence the internal cultures of schools and colleges. It brings to readers' awareness the importance of the ephemeral and non-rational influences which permeate the social construction of what are claimed to be rational and even ‘objective’ organisational structures and management processes.

    To understand these influences, managers and school leaders need to be able to know where and how to look for the evidence of them and to interpret them, as this book suggests. Although the evidence is often visible, it is so taken for granted in the ordinaries of everyday life and work in organisations that it is frequently overlooked. In order to manage educational institutions more effectively, this book encourages educational leaders to become more consciously aware of the multiple dimensions and frameworks of organisational culture.

    HughBusher, March 1999

    Notes on Contributors

    Dena Attar taught Gender and Education at the Open University and was a researcher on the Fact and Fiction Project. She is now researching gender and new electronic texts at the University of Sussex. Her previous books include Wasting Girls' Time (1990, Virago) and Disputes from Babylon (forthcoming).

    Jenny Corbett is a senior lecturer at the University of London Institute of Education where she teaches and researches in the area of special education. Her particular interest is post-compulsory education, terminology and the influence of cultural contexts upon definitions of special need. Her most recent book is Special Educational Needs in the Twentieth Century: a cultural analysis (1998, Cassell).

    David Hargreaves is Professor of Education in the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Wolfson College. Over the last thirty years he has written on a wide range of educational topics and is currently working on the creation of professional knowledge by teachers. He is a member of David Blunkett's Standards Task Force.

    Máirtín Mac an Ghaill teaches in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Sheffield University. He is the author of The Making of Men: Masculinities, Sexualities and Schooling. He has just completed a book on Contemporary Racisms and Ethnicities: Social and Cultural Transformations.

    Claudia Mitchell is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education of McGill University, where she teaches literacy, gender studies and qualitative research methodology. She has collaborated with Sandra Weber on major research projects in teacher education for many years.

    Gemma Moss is a lecturer in Education with special reference to Literacy, at the University of Southampton. She is currently directing the Fact and Fiction Research Project, funded by the ESRC. Previous research has concentrated on young people's use of a range of different media; gender, literacy and the romance genre; and the secondary English curriculum. She is co-authoring a book on the gendering of literacy in the 7–8 age-group, with Dena Attar.

    Pamela Munn is Professor of Curriculum Research in the Moray House Faculty of Education, University of Edinburgh. She has recently, with others, completed a major study of school exclusion in Scotland and is currently researching the relationships between schools and their local communities. Her most recent publication in 1997 is a co-edited collection with Margaret M. Clark, Education in Scotland: Policy and Practice from Pre-School to Secondary (Routledge).

    Jennifer Nias holds a part-time post as Rolle Professor of Education at the University of Plymouth. Her research into primary teachers' work and lives has led her recently to explore teachers' moral responsibilities and values, particularly as these contribute to occupational tension and stress. Her publications include Primary Teachers Talking, 1989; Staff Relations in the Primary School, 1989, with G. Southworth and R. Yeomans; and Whole-School Curriculum Development in Primary Schools, 1992, with G. Southworth and P. Campbell.

    Sally Power is a senior lecturer in Policy Studies, Institude of Education, University of London. Teaching and research interests include all aspects of education policy and particularly those relating to state and private education and the secondary school curriculum. She is the author of The Pastoral and the Academic: Conflict and Contradiction in the Curriculum (1996, Cassell) and co-author of Devolution and Choice in Education: the School, the State and the Market (1988, Open University Press).

    Jon Prosser is a member of the research and graduate School of Education at the University of Southampton. He teaches qualitative methodology, management and institutional culture, and is course director of the Doctorate in Education programme. His research interests include school effectiveness and improvement, and the visual representation of institutional culture. His most recent publication is Image-based Research: A Sourcebook for Qualitative Researchers (Falmer).

    Louise Stoll is Professor of Education at the University of Bath. She is involved in partnership improvement projects with schools and LEAs and set up the School Improvement Network. Current and recent research includes a study of new LEAs, the Improving School Effectiveness Project for the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department, and the Capacity for Change project for the European Commission. Her publications include School Matters (1988) with Peter Mortimore and colleagues; Changing our Schools (1996 – with Dean Fink) and No Quick Fixes: Perspectives on Schools in Difficulty (1998 – edited with Kate Myers). She has presented and consulted in many countries.

    Terry Warburton is a lecturer in Research Methods for the Education subject group in the Faculty of Arts, Science and Education at Bolton Institute. His research interests are the professional cultures of teaching; images of teachers and teaching, particularly political cartoons; and education and the media.

    Sandra Weber is Professor of Early Childhood Education at Concordia University in Montreal, where she teaches curriculum theory, qualitative research methodology, children's popular culture and second language acquisition. She has collaborated with Claudia Mitchell on major research projects in teacher education for many years, resulting in a series of co-authored articles and two recent books, That's Funny, You Don't Look Like a Teacher! Interrogating Images and Teacher Identity in Popular Culture (1995, Falmer) and Beyond Nostalgia: Reinventing Ourselves as Teachers (1998, Falmer).

    Geoff Whitty is Karl Mannheim Professor of Sociology of Education and Dean of Research at the Institute of Education, University of London. He has written and lectured extensively on the sociology of the school curriculum and education policy. His latest book (with Sally Power and David Halpin) is Devolution and Choice in Education: The School, the State and the Market (1998, Open University Press).


    The details of my schooldays are mostly a distant memory. Nevertheless, as a pupil in an inner city school with a ‘reputation’, certain details are engraved in my mind. There were special places such as smokers' corner, the bike sheds, and the Head's office, that still make me wince, chuckle or send shivers down my spine. There were ‘characterful’ teachers like Mr Hall (a failed actor), Mr Frogatt (an ex-wrestler who helped me after school with maths), Mr Black (who was violent), and Mr Taylor (nicknamed ‘splash’ because he splashed when he spoke), who in turn I admired, appreciated, hated or whose eccentricity was distracting. The memory of school dinners, assemblies, changing rooms, corridors, and arts rooms are evoked even now by certain films, books, noises, smells, or tastes.

    Other memories of school are less distant. I can distinctly remember the first day of my first post as a maths teacher in a secondary modern school in Blackpool. I wore a white shirt, nondescript tie, hairy sports jacket, grey flannels and plain black shoes. I carried a cheap briefcase from Woolworths that contained detailed lesson notes for the day, sandwiches, and a new coffee mug. The first year was a struggle: I followed the usual wisdoms (‘don't smile before Easter’); avoided sitting in the someone else's chair in the staffroom; tried to demonstrate my professional competence by keeping my classes quiet; feigned camaraderie and playing for the staff cricket team; and most importantly kept on the right side of the caretaker. I mimicked other teachers' behaviour and dress code because I desperately wanted to look like a teacher, act like a teacher, be accepted as a teacher.

    More recently, as a parent, I see schools in a different light. The ‘Open Days’, ‘Christmas Plays’, ‘Speech Days’, and ‘Parents' Evenings’, are all part of me trying my best for my children by involvement in their school. Through them I revisit distant memories of my school days and it is as though life is turning full circle and that schools have not changed to any significant degree. Of course the experiences I'm relating are repeated millions of times in a myriad of subtly different ways by each passing generation of pupils, teachers and parents. They are manifestations of school culture and the central focus of this book. It aims to provide both understanding and insight into school culture that will be of interest to practitioners, policy makers and theoreticians. It is concerned with everyday perspectives, realities, systems and patterns of school life and prominence is given to theoretical frameworks (sometimes necessarily complex), behaviours and meanings (of those who create, manage and maintain school culture) because they underpin our understanding and inform practice.

    Culture is a useful if intricate and elusive notion. In its broadest sense it is a way of constructing reality and different cultures are simply alternative constructions of reality. In the past metaphors such as ‘climate’, ‘ethos’, ‘tone’, ‘atmosphere’, and ‘character’ have been used to orientate our thinking about schools. However, they are limiting since, by their nature, they incline and confine our understanding to very particular aspects of schooling while neglecting significant others. The cultural perspective is a more beneficial way of viewing schools because it provides encompassing methodological and theoretical frameworks that are less limiting than other metaphors. This does not exclude acceptance that problems arise when using a single framework to understand the immense complexity of schools; nor does it preclude the advantages, for example, in ‘overlaying’ a cultural framework with a historical, political or managerial perspective that may produce a hybrid orientation that is ‘concept rich’.

    In practice, the operational definition of culture is seen as a system of related subsystems, which in turn organise the relationships among cultural patterns. Classical sub-systems used by social scientists include organising communication, resource allocation, social interaction, reproduction and ideology. In this book, whilst drawing on such extensive sub-systems, emphasis is placed on values and beliefs, norms of behaviour, social structures, social systems, social groups, status, roles, control systems, rituals and traditions. School culture is not only the particular patterns of perception and related to behaviour, but also the system of relationships between those relationships. In practice, school culture is often viewed as either a totality and therefore a summation of behaviours or as a system of dynamically related sub-cultures. Hence, because this book is intended to cover diverse positions on ‘school culture’, the book naturally forms two parts: authors of Chapters 16 perceive school culture as essentially a holistic concept, whereas authors of Chapters 711 adopt the stance that school culture comprises significant sub-cultures. Each of the eleven authors offers an interpretation of school culture and collectively they represent a diverse range of disciplines, theories, and research methodologies.

    Chapter 1 – The Evolution of School Culture Research

    ‘School Culture’ is a term widely used and abused by practitioners, policy makers and academics. Only in the last decade have we come to terms with the paucity of our knowledge and begun to explore what constitutes school culture, how it is identified or changed, and how it impacts on the quality of educational provision. Chapter 1 examines the evolution of school culture research in the UK and is a good starting point for those new to the topic. It traces how the notion of school culture has evolved over the last thirty years and in particular how it was shaped by: trends in educational practice; the differing terms and meanings attributed to it; trends in research methodology; and political influences. The chapter concludes by examining three contemporary issues: the meaning of school culture; evolving theoretical frameworks; and the relationship between school culture and improving practice.

    Chapter 2 – Market Forces and School Culture

    Whereas Chapter 1 covers considerable ground, albeit superficially, Chapter 2 is an in-depth discussion of the influence of market forces on school culture. It takes the position that whilst schools may have an ‘institutional culture’, that culture does not exist in a vacuum but is part of and related to regional, national and international cultures. More importantly, Sally Power and Geoff Whitty point out that marketisation of education is a global phenomenon and link political agenda (essentially new right) with the influx of new subjects and curricula. There is an awareness of important global features of schooling and that certain features (such as what is to be taught) are political and implicit in that they constitute an international form of ‘hidden curriculum’.

    Chapter 3 – School Culture: Black Hole or Fertile Garden for School Improvement?

    Chapter 2 conceives of school culture as holistic and universal and suggests that changes in school culture are formed by an agenda external to schools. However, Chapter 3 perceives school culture as a set of context related normative parameters within which improvement may take place. Two important questions of school culture are posed: how is it changed and what are the practical implications for schooling? Each question in itself is difficult to answer but those who seek to improve the effectiveness of schooling must wrestle with these and other questions simultaneously. Louise Stoll argues that if improvement is to take place then significant across-the-board transformations need to take place. Without a refined understanding of the dynamic relationship between school culture and change management, and indeed making this combination integral to a school's culture (i.e. ‘reculturing’), school improvement is destined to sink into a ‘black hole’ rather than flourish in a ‘fertile garden’. There is a clear message here for practitioners: whatever theory, framework or synthesis you bring to school culture, school improvement comes about from within, when changes in taken-for-granted practices are made. As with Chapter 1, this chapter draws on a wide range of literature and would be a good starting point for those new to both school culture and school improvement.

    Chapter 4 – Helping Practitioners Explore Their School's Culture

    School culture is viewed by some as a topic that is obscure, opaque, and impenetrable. Chapter 4, more than any other chapter in this book, goes some way to overcoming such views. The chapter is directed at practitioners, particularly senior members of staff who are engaged in improving the effectiveness of their school. Three important tasks that are related to school culture are considered: the diagnostic task (identifying a school's culture); the directional task (deciding which way a school's culture should move); and the managerial task (after decided where a school's culture is going it is necessary to arrange and implement a plan to get it there). In this carefully constructed chapter David Hargreaves combines substantive theory, thought provoking questioning and pragmatism, enabling practitioners to confront important issues which, if engaged in and followed, act as a ‘springboard’ for action.

    Chapter 5 – Primary Teaching as a Culture of Care

    School culture may be considered as a system of sub-cultures of which teacher culture is just one – but one which pervades the whole institution. Cultural systems pass from generation to generation through the process of learning. At the centre the learning process for teachers is the ongoing absorption of generic values and beliefs about the teaching profession. Jennifer Nias considers such values and beliefs in a primary school context and examines how they combine to form a ‘culture of care’. A number for theoretical frameworks are used to explore the origins of the ‘culture of care’, especially how values in action interact with personal identity to produce contemporary everyday practice. This is a thought provoking chapter which leads us to ponder what other deeply held values and beliefs that are rooted in the past remain part of everyday professional practice.

    Chapter 6 – Visual Sociology and School Culture

    Past studies of school culture have in common the application of a qualitative methodology that is ethnographic in orientation. This approach normally entails participant observation and emphasises participants' interpretation of cultural elements of schooling. Chapter 6, whilst also drawing on ethnography and anthropology, offers an alternative mode of investigation in that it is more concerned with the visual world than the written or spoken word. There are very sound reasons for this. Schools are rich in visual culture, usually of a symbolic nature embedded in gestures, ceremonies, rituals, or artefacts, situated in both constructed and natural settings. It is argued that the visual representation of school culture offer data sets that are important to practitioners and academics because they provide an insight into the values, beliefs, and priorities of those who shape that culture.

    Chapter 7 – Schooling, Masculine Identities and Culture

    We know that school culture is influential in determining pupils' academic achievements and behaviour. Only relatively recently has there been an interest in pupil culture. Perhaps the lack of interest was because it was thought that pupils were merely the recipients of school culture and not influential in shaping it. Alternatively the new impetus could be a result of concern when, following the monitoring of national examination results, it was recognised that during the secondary school years girls were outperforming boys and that many boys were underachieving. Explanations for this are varied and weak and expose the paucity and limitations of our knowledge of pupil culture. Máirtín Mac an Ghaill exposes the complexity of (Anglo) ethnicities and (hetero) sexualities among male pupils. He draws on contemporary theory and his own data to suggest that pupils are not simply recipients of schooling nor do they reproduce the normative ethnic/gender as expressed by wider society or at home. He implies that there is a dynamic relationship between pupil culture and school culture, the outcome of which is that pupils create their own identities whose subtleties and influence of which we are only now beginning to understand. Only by increased awareness of pupil culture, can we go on to answer the questions many headteachers are asking themselves – why are those groups of pupils underachieving or achieving beyond expectations?

    Chapter 8 – The ‘Darker Side’ of Pupil Culture: Discipline and Bullying in Schools

    One way of looking at the culture of schools is to view it as a reflection of societal values. Different sectors of society will prioritise different values for schooling – some groups emphasise academic outcomes whilst others stress citizenship and interpersonal relationships. Those who emphasise the former recognise and acknowledge the ‘hidden curriculum’ although they view it as a by-product of teaching and learning rather than being central to the educative process. Nevertheless, what is undeniable is that pupils are influenced by the overarching culture of their school. The nature of that influence is subterranean and hidden within the everyday milieu that is schooling. In this chapter Pamela Munn reflects on discipline and bullying – both important elements that are part of pupil culture – which, although managed by the institution explicitly by regulation, in practice reflects individual and group perception of acceptable or normative behaviour. She goes on to describe a range of strategies which schools can take up to promote good relationships among pupils and between pupils and teachers. Although the chapter is concerned with the ‘darker side’ of pupil culture it proposes a positive stance and proffers enlightened remedies.

    Chapter 9 – Inclusivity and School Culture: The Case of Special Education

    This chapter is also concerned with bullying but of a particular sort. With successive government emphases on the effectiveness of schools come comparisons of academic standards and market forces that ultimately may shape a school's intake. Government policy on assessment and evaluation juxtaposes interestingly with its policy on inclusivity and special educational needs. Jenny Corbett points out that incorporating special needs pupils into mainstream schools is likely to have damaging repercussions. She argues that mainstream schools seeking to improve their academic standing will not encourage special needs pupils and that those remaining special needs schools will become ‘sink’ schools. For true inclusivity to take place institutional orders and structures will be insufficient. There will need to be a shift in the ‘deep culture’ of mainstream pupils if special needs children are not to suffer rejection by their new school peers. This chapter is also instructive on another level in that it provides an insight into the dynamic relationship between sub-cultures. If we believe that school culture is the summative effect of its sub-cultures which can only be understood by exploring the significance of their dynamic relationship, then this chapter provides an awareness of the resultant interplay between dominant and less dominant sub-cultures. Moreover, if we accept that a measure of a civilisation is the way in which it treats its most vulnerable individuals, then the case of inclusivity will provide a gauge of the quality of our culture.

    Chapter 10 – Boys and Literacy: Gendering the Reading Curriculum

    In recent years there has been a shift in emphasis from school-wide factors of school effectiveness to looking at what happens in classrooms. One way to improve teaching and learning is to understand how pupils learn and adopt appropriate teaching strategies. We are only now coming to question taken-for-granted classroom culture: what is the appropriate age to start formal learning; should we begin education by teaching the three ‘Rs’ or teach pupils social and behavioural skills that underpin the effective teaching and learning? Only by putting together the micro-cultural ‘jigsaw’ of the classroom will we begin to establish effective teaching and learning. Chapter 10 is a good example of this important work. Gemma Moss and Dena Attar draw on a recent findings which indicate that boys do less well at reading than girls and in their ESRC funded study ask how ‘boys and girls gender reading for themselves in the classroom and in the context of their own leisure time; and how reading is gendered for them through their interactions with adults at home and in school’. The chapter focuses on the school and examines the structuring of the reading curriculum, particularly how such structures lead to different forms of activity. The findings of the study provide an insight into boy's evasive strategies and provides us with substantive theory on how texts ‘construct’ child readers.

    Chapter 11 – Teacher Identity in Popular Culture

    The culture of organisations and institutions is most often perceived in terms of managerial theory and examined by orthodox qualitative research methodology. What makes the final chapter quite different from this approach (and therefore different from the majority of chapters in this book) is its emphasis on ‘popular culture’, post-modern tenets, and the importance of narrative to enable practitioners to resonate with the topic of teacher identity. It is refreshing in its embrace of a cultural studies methodology and because it opens up the possibility of additional and alternative approaches to conducting research and the exploration topics that lie outside of anthropological or managerial perspectives. The chapter briefly considers the significance of teacher images to teachers' work and identity before examining in more detail how cultural images outside of school impinge on teacher identity and indirectly on school culture.

    The chapters in this book provide a blend of insights into school culture and represent the continuum that exists between the ‘holistic’ and the ‘summation of sub-cultures’ perspectives. They also deliver a combination of practical and theoretical observations and mixture of culture as anthropological or culture as popular. The potential for future school culture research is considerable. However, schools are complex systems and clearly there is a need to rethink and refine our theories and methodologies in order to reflect that complexity. As we strive to classify phenomena and build a systematic understanding of schooling the cultural framework is well placed to provide a serviceable platform for exploration. Nonetheless there is a need to remember that school culture is in a continuous state of flux and not easy to identify or examine for ‘Education can be said to be a process which redefines culture in the act of handing it on’ (Chitty, 1997, p. 60). Future studies should take account of the dynamic properties of school sub-cultures and assimilate theory emanating from disparate disciplines, methodologies and frameworks. Most importantly school culture studies are obligated to ask questions that will help practitioners improve educational provision.

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