Soumya Suresh - Curriculum Design Manager, School leadership programmes at Teach First
Soumya Suresh
Curriculum Design Manager for School Leadership Programmes at Teach First

Does school culture eat strategy for breakfast?

Schools have rapidly reacted to an ever-changing situation. If the past year has taught us anything, it's that a school is much more than just a building.


This panel explores how schools can create a culture that supports learning and the wellbeing of both students and staff as we look to a future beyond the pandemic. We consider the things we’ve learnt in the last year that we want to hold on to, and what are the things to leave behind. How can we build inclusive schools that great teachers and leaders want to work in, and that achieve great outcomes for pupils?


  • Bridget Clay - Director of School Leadership at Teach First


  • Neil MileyExecutive Principal at Dixons Academies Trust
  • Clare Watson-SpenceAchievement Partner at Teach First
  • Jonathan SharplesProfessorial Research Fellow at Education Endowment Foundation

What is school culture?

Culture is a term used widely across schools and interestingly, experts (or even school leaders) haven’t quite agreed on a common definition. It’s been described as "guiding beliefs and values, a social indoctrination of unwritten rules learnt to fit into a particular group, the way we do things around here, software for the mind, the default mode of behaviour and so on." (Gruenert & Whitaker 2017).

What experts do agree on is that though culture is an abstract concept, it is ubiquitous, wielding great power and influence over what people think and do, making its presence felt in every aspect of school life. Schein (1985) argues the possibility that the ‘only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture’. Hence, understanding their school culture can prove to be extremely powerful for school leaders. Once we learn about our culture, we can then make the choice: comply with it or change it.

What is the relationship between culture and strategy? 

At Teach First, we are aiming to create a fair education for all - within this is an implicit need for change. Few can argue that having the right culture is critical for school improvement or change. A strategy’s success hinges on whether the culture is conducive for the strategy’s demands and assumptions. Gruenert & Whitaker (2017) propose a powerful link between culture and school improvement:

“Using school culture to improve schools may be a unique approach. School leaders are warned about how controlling school culture can be. Few consider it an ally.”

The reality is that if culture and improvement efforts are in contradiction to each other, culture will ultimately win and prevent any long-term changes. However, if culture is in line with the vision, mission and improvement priorities of a school, the change efforts can be long-lasting and truly embedded into the school’s practices.

Fidler (2002) says that unless cultural influences are made explicit, they may lead to strategic possibilities being prejudged with the rejection of those that are not consistent with the prevailing culture. Hence, a vital element in assessing the viability of any new strategy will be to compare its implicit values implicit with the prevailing values of the school. This will indicate the difficulty of getting the strategy accepted and implemented.

How can we change school culture?

Changing the culture of a school is not an easy task. Usually, the well-intentioned values and deeply rooted perceptions of adults in the education system are firmly embedded and thus deemed sacred. Hence, cultural change is a long process, taking somewhere between 3-5 years (Gruenert & Whitaker 2017; Stoll 1998).

The ongoing pandemic has required schools to adapt and change at a pace not seen before. However, whether this is a temporary ‘climate’ change, or a more embedded ‘cultural’ change is something we are hoping to investigate.

During this Future Terms panel, we will explore what constitutes culture, the impact of the pandemic on school culture and hear perspectives on how culture can support learning and student & staff wellbeing.


  • Fidler, B. (2002). Strategic Management for School Development. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
  • Gruenert, S., & Whitaker, T. (2015). School culture rewired: how to define, assess, and transform it. Alexandria, Virginia USA: ASCD.
  • Schein, E. H. (1985). Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Stoll, L. (1998). School Culture. School Improvement Network's Bulletin, Autumn (9).


Teach First's Future Terms panel series invites experts from across the sector to address the most pressing topics in education. Sign up to watch our upcoming events:

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