Culture and Context

From where does a school’s persona arise? And what role does the headteacher play in creating this persona?

There has been much written and said about school culture – what we mean by the term, how it comes about. In this post I would like to highlight a systems perspective on this matter. Discussions around school culture often emphasise how it can be intentionally ‘set’ or ‘moulded’ by one of more people; usually those in a leadership position. The history and traditions of an organisation are also frequently referenced as the ’cause’ of school culture. However, the interplay between the two is less often considered. If we view school culture as a dynamic, evolving process, we may gain further insight into this elusive phenomenon.

I’ll begin with the familiar. The school in which I am headteacher is widely regarded as a ‘friendly’ institution. What I think people mean by this is that there is open, friendly interaction day-to-day between those who attend the school – staff, students, parents. When people pass each other they generally say hello. You will come across people interacting socially. There is generally a calm and benign atmosphere about the place. Friendliness is definitely an observable feature of the school culture.

It is also the case that it has been this way for a long time. We might wonder why? Is it because the school employs very friendly people? Or perhaps there have been a succession of headteachers who have created this friendly culture?

Those who write on the subject of culture would caution us that overt behaviours are visible indicators of something deeper, being the attitudes, values and beliefs of those in the organisation. The iceberg model of culture (Hall, 1976) is an example of this. However, such models tend to highlight the underlying thought processes of agents within the organisation as if they are general traits of the individual rather than these beliefs and values being contextual.

To explain what I mean by the above, let’s return to our example. For those who act in a ‘friendly’ way in my school, to what extent is it that they have a general belief that being friendly is desirable? No doubt they do to some extent – they are lovely people. However, can we claim they are generally more friendly than the population at large? We could claim that the school recruits people that ‘fit’ the culture, but in my experience we rarely get a large enough field of applicants to be that fussy. We could claim that the school is situated in a particularly friendly part of the country, but this seems unlikely.

It is much more likely that the observed ‘friendliness’ is a context behaviour. In other words, it is not a reflection of generally held underlying beliefs by individuals in the organisation but the a belief about how it is proper and appropriate to behave in this context. These same people are unlikely, for example, to be so friendly in a conflict situation, when under mental duress, or when talking to their least-favourite in-law! This conclusion points us towards considering what it is about the context, rather than the people within the organisation, that permits and promotes particular behaviours.

Context in complex adaptive systems is not an antecedent, mediator, or moderator variable; rather it is the ambience that spawns a given system’s dynamic persona.

Uhl-Bien et al (2007)

In this quote, Uhl-Bien and colleagues are asserting that context is not an incidental factor in organisational culture but rather a fundamental determinant; that the ‘persona’ of an organisation arises from the system dynamics peculiar to it. They define ‘personae’ as including the nature of the interactions and interdependencies among those in the organisation (the visible culture).

If we were to analyse the contextual factors which may be causal to our ‘friendly’ vibe we might identify long-standing systemic reasons which have given rise to this facet of the school culture (or at least allowed it to surface). I would start by highlighting the nature of the students who attend the school, which is itself a result of the local environment and demographic. Our students do not, relatively speaking, present particularly challenging behaviours and this means admonishment is rare. They are also relatively high attaining before they arrive, therefore go on to get good exam results, which itself leads to a school under less pressure to improve outcomes (and subsequently the school has avoided a high-stakes, accountability culture). I would also point to the school environment, situated as it is in open country-side and with plenty of space to move around (with the exception of a lack of hard-court space which means over the winter months students are crowded together – this leads to an observable drop in friendliness and rise in conflict). There is also significant stability in staffing, which is a consequence of what people choose to apply to this kind of school in the first place, which is itself a consequence of the reputation and prevailing culture. This stability means that there is a greater sense of community (with many staff having children come through the school) and long-term relationships are built.

I could go on, but the point is that there are powerful, long-standing contextual factors which drive the culture. Our friendliness is a feature of the context more than any wilful attempt to create a friendly school.

Which leads me to the question of what role the headteacher plays in defining school culture?

Hypothetically, what would happen if I was really unfriendly; if I modelled behaviours which were counter to the prevailing culture? Whilst people would grumble about their grumpy headteacher, this factor alone would be unlikely to cause a tidal change in the culture. Besides which, a school with such a strong cultural feature would be unlikely to employ such a miserable git anyway!

More likely, I could cause a change in this culture by influencing some of the systemic features which created and sustain it. For example, by making the school more exam-results focussed, introducing high-stakes accountability for staff, or increasing workload, I could have a significant effect (intentionally or otherwise) on how people behave towards each other in everyday interactions. In this sense, we may view the headteacher as ‘powerful’ in determining school culture.

But how likely would I be to do this? Am I not also, as headteacher, adaptive to school context? The very same contextual factors which have produced the school culture act on me also. If I am in any way attuned to this context I would avoid such behaviours. For example, many of our students come from way out of catchment and the school relies on this to stay financially healthy. A key reason parents choose to send their children on a long bus journey each day is the culture they witness, hear about, and experience when they visit the school. Therefore, it is in my interest (and the school’s) that I act to sustain this culture.

We may interpret this dynamic as the system producing this culture for a reason. Of course, the system is not a sentient being, but it behaves as if it is. This is an evolutionary view of school culture as being an adaptive response to the environment.

This is a novel and interesting way to view leadership: as an adaptive response to a complex system. As Uhl-Bien et al argue, leadership may be viewed as being socially constructed in and from the context. They note that leadership theory which merely focuses on the actions of leaders is ‘incomplete and impractical’. It is also a novel way to view school culture, as being as much a cause of leadership as a consequence of it. If we limit our analysis to how headteachers can affect school culture, we ignore the strong systemic forces which provoke them to act in this way.

We compromise our understanding of leadership when we fail to consider that school leaders are adaptive agents within the system. One way leads to an heroic paradigm for leadership, the other a more subtle understanding of why leaders do the things they do.

At this point you may challenge me to justify whether these conclusions apply equally to less stable or constructive cultures. Again, I’ll use an example to make my case in this regard.

I know of a headteacher who was appointed to lead a school in very challenging circumstances. The school had a long history of failure and numerous headteachers had come and gone in a very short space of time. Whatever the systemic factors were that led to this state of affairs, the outcome was clearly not desirable. The unenviable task of anyone brave enough to lead such a school is to take on these systemic forces. Clearly, allowing themselves to become ‘part of the problem’ (i.e. subject to the same contextual factors that sustained this state of ineffectiveness) would be leadership failure.

In such circumstances, assertive and bold action is required by the headteacher. We may conclude that if the school is this way for a reason then those reasons are to be fought against. We may call for ‘strong leadership’ in such circumstances.

But again, we should see this leadership approach as being an adaptive response to the context. Characterising leadership as ‘strong’ is circumstantial and not particularly enlightening. In the above example, what the school ‘needed’ was first and foremost a headteacher who would stay longer than a few months. To establish a culture whereby people would change their beliefs, not merely their behaviours, they needed to trust that the direction provided would not be transient. Both staff and students had been let down many times and it was their belief that this would continue to happen. The most fundamental act of leadership was to be the exception to the cultural norm – to stay!

The difference between the two examples cited are that one school may be described as functional and the other dysfunctional. In the dysfunctional context, we may be right to call for school leaders to exert strong influence on the culture (or the systemic factors from which the culture arises). However, to generalise that the role of headteachers is to ‘set’ the school culture or that the headteacher ‘determines’ school culture is a naive generalisation, and plays into the narrative that it is all about the headteacher. Culture lives beyond the control of the headteacher for the most part. We might like to believe this were not so.

In reality, schools have more functional and dysfunctional aspects and headteachers must decide what aspects of the culture they wish to act upon, and how assertively to do so. These decisions, and the consequent actions, are themselves an adaptive response. To quote Uhl-Bien et al once more, we should view leadership as ‘an emergent, interactive dynamic that is productive of adaptive outcomes’. In other words, responsive leadership will provide the school with what it needs. Leadership is not static or carried out in isolation; it is not definable as separate from context.

When viewed from the perspective of schools and leaders as symbiotic and adaptive we can both acknowledge the role headteachers play in acting upon school culture and recognise that they too are acted upon by the system. Understanding this dynamic should enlighten rather than confuse us. Just because the causal relationships are complex does not mean we cannot keep our actions and messaging simple. Leadership requires that we do not over-complicate our attempts to solve problems, but do not over-simplify our mental models for how these problems arise and how solutions will take effect. We should avoid simplistic claims as to ‘what leaders do’ or ‘what leaders are’ and instead delve into the reasons they do the things they do. These reasons are not always about the inherent qualities of the leader.

As for school culture, its determinants defy simple explanation. If we desire to act upon it, we should do so knowing it is greater than any individual who passes through it.

Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R. and McKelvey, B., 2007. Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The leadership quarterly18(4), pp.298-318.

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