Turning Ethos Into Culture

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Our guest blog post this week comes from Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, a British School based in Abu Dhabi.  With more than 1000 pupils, a top rating from the Abu Dhabi Education Council, and the title of New British International School of the Year 2017 and SchoolsCompared.com Top School in Abu Dhabi, they have climbed mountains in only four years. This is the third blog in the series that features character and wellbeing teacher champions in their network of schools.


The aim of these blogs is to share with the IPEN network a variety of ways that wellbeing and positive education are being developed in real, on-the-ground situations and settings by practising teachers in a range of school settings. This blog is written by Natassja Williams (Deputy Head)  from Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Picture taken from Mindful May (Years 3-6) participated in an early morning Yoga session.

Throughout the UK and internationally, educational establishments are more aware than ever of the need to put a positive culture at the heart of their curriculum. The choice of words that schools use to describe their programmes varies. Happiness, well-being, mindfulness, moral education, values, character…the list goes on. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how schools articulate their approach, as long as they are paying more than lip service to its ability to improve outcomes and opportunities for children.

Creating a room for mindfulness or adding character language into tutoring systems is commendable providing it’s not just to tick a box or secure a newspaper article. It has to go deeper and become part of the DNA of the school. Thus turning ethos into culture.

“The term school culture generally refers to the beliefs, perceptions, relationships, attitudes, and written and unwritten rules that shape and influence every aspect of how a school functions, but the term also encompasses more concrete issues such as the physical and emotional safety of students …”

So, how can character or positive educational programmes be worked into the timetable without negatively impacting the core curriculum? What is the best way to get buy-in from the entire school community? How do you manage to engage the academic team? And what does success look like?

I have realised that to create a culture of character and well-being in a school is harder than it looks. It involves so much more than crafting an ethos or wordsmithing a set of values although these need to be done. To really have an impact, a character and well-being programme must be embedded into everything the schools stands for and most importantly must come from the senior leadership. It involves everyone – children, staff, parents, facilities teams, dinner ladies and the Board of Governors. And it must be driven into everything strategically and most importantly with passion.

Someone once told me it requires a leap of faith to believe that children who develop strong character and a solid sense of well-being will inevitably do well in exams as they will have developed the necessary traits to be successful. This is culture. 

This is where leadership comes in. If the Headteacher has taken that leap of faith and believes all areas of the school – especially the academics – require a focus on character and well-being to be successful, then the tone is set.  This is culture.

If, on the other hand, the Headteacher still allows the pressure of league tables or timetabling to get in the way of focusing on character and well-being, then the school will continue to teach in a one dimensional fashion.  

My proposal is that it does not have to be one or the other. The solution is an evolution of teaching practice that sees things like moral, civic, performance and intellectual virtues and the character strengths within this integral to the educational journey. It is only when this is achieved that we as teachers will have provided children with the values, skills and ultimately the power of knowledge and practical wisdom to take risks, challenge arguments, break boundaries and be the best they can be.

Creating a culture and well-being of character takes time. It has to be brought alive through the language, the corridors, the cross curricular activities, the assemblies, the school development plan, the displays, the relationships, the actions and demeanour of the staff, the minutes of meetings, the target setting, the curriculum maps, the lesson planning – and more.  In other words, in every single behavioural pattern of the school.

There are conflicting views on whether there should be policy guidelines, benchmarks and structures leading to certification as a ‘School of Character’, or a ‘Positive School’. Some believe that there has to be standardisation in order to allow for measurement. While I see the rationale behind this on paper, in real life too much protocol tends to burden schools with paperwork and worse still, promote a culture that focuses on inspection rather than education.

In my view, any attempt to pull character out as a separate programme in order to facilitate measurement will weaken its impact. Character and well-being development is not the purview of any one team. It can’t be just an extra ‘layer’. It has to be endemic. In fact, I believe that schools should review traditional structures in the context of what we know a modern education needs to deliver. The days of managing pastoral, academic and co-curricular programmes separately are all but over. If you agree that pupil wellbeing is essential for successful learning and that education has to be all about the whole child, then a school’s organisational structure surely needs to reflect this.

This is culture.




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