Why culture is everything

Why culture is everything

Blog Post by CEO Julian Dutnall

Age is just a number

With origins dating back to 597AD, The King’s School Canterbury at 1425 years old, is reputedly the oldest continuously operating school in the world.

In 2009, The Cabot Learning Federation became a single multi academy trust and at 13 years old is one of the oldest MATs in our country.

This means that MATs have been around for a mere 0.9% of the life span of our oldest UK school!

Our Trust, the LIFE Education Trust, is just over 6 years old whilst our oldest school, Dame Tipping, founded in 1724, is nearly 300 years old.

Now age is not everything. Some things mature and age well, others do not.

But one thing is clear, as Trust leaders, we are running organisations that are very young, organisational toddlers, in a sector which is in its early years. This is in contrast to the school system which has reached old age in comparison.

This should be both reassuring and frightening. There is so much to do. So much good we can do with so many triumphs and tribulations, successes and failures to come.

What is culture?

Culture is everything and everywhere. Having a culture is not optional.

Organisation consultants Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy in their classic 1982 book summed it up neatly saying that culture is, “The way we do things around here”.

Edgar Schein suggested that like an iceberg, culture has layers you can see and those you can’t. What you don’t see is more important than what you do.

  • The bottom of the iceberg is Layer 1. These are the assumptions and beliefs that are both fundamental and foundational to the organisation and the people in it.
  • Also below the water line is Layer 2; the values. These are what the people in the organisation, and those dealing with the organisation, think are important.  
  • The only layer that is visible to all is Layer 3; artefacts. These are the visual things like uniforms, posters, signs and documents which all say something about the organisation.

Every organisation needs to be consciously aware of its underlying assumptions, beliefs and values and of the artefacts that people will see.

How should we cultivate culture?

Part of the answer lies in the origins of the word Culture itself. In Middle English, culture was first used between 1400 to 1450 meaning ‘the place tilled.’ 

This link to agriculture suggests that creating and cultivating culture means that you intensely inhabit a place, you are responsible for it, you respond to it, and attend to it caringly.

If we imagine that our Trusts are gardens, then we should be intentional about nurturing, developing and caring for them. If we work hard, prepare the soil, sow and till; our garden becomes not only an attractive space, but also productive and resilient.

But without that continual dedication, the weeds will take over and our garden will be left to fend for itself against the elements.

Synthesising this analogy and the definition of Deal and Kennedy, we need to be:

  • Tillers and toilers, intentional about creating a culture,
  • Commitment creators, developing a place which people choose to belong to and can contribute to,
  • Way makers, determining, defining, codifying and communicating the way we do things around here.

The challenge for Trusts

We all started with something, a single school, a sponsor or a small group of schools, and the likelihood is that this entity had a culture. But many of us have grown through acquiring schools, with their people and pupils, and with each having its own culture bound together with its own assumptions, beliefs, values and artefacts.

So how do we ensure we have a cohesive, inclusive, representative and positive Trust culture when there are so many moving parts?

Firstly, we need to codify our culture and make it as easily understandable as possible for any-one within or seeking to join the Trust can understand.

Secondly, there needs to be an intelligent cultural acclimatisation strategy so that our way of working is fully understood and owned by those who work with and also by those who are considering joining us.

Finally, we need to ensure that we recruit, retain and develop individual people and schools who embody our beliefs, values and behaviours. This means that sometimes we may need to be bold enough to walk away from potential new employees, partners and schools if their culture does not align with ours.

To help us with this work, we adopted Deal and Kennedy’s six features of strong culture:

  • History
  • Values and Beliefs
  • Rituals and Ceremonies
  • Stories
  • Heroic Figures
  • The Cultural Network

We are building our own history and creating memories by recognising and showcasing our history as we grow. We are telling stories of our schools and our people, creating our own rituals and ceremonies which include Pupil Celebration Evenings, pupil LIFE Ambassadors in every school and a LIFE Governance Conference. 

We found that having a Trust mission, “building great learning communities”, helped clarify the difference between the Trust and the individual schools who all have their own visions which focus on their particular contexts.

We celebrate our heroes and we create networks across our schools whose work transcends what could be achieved by them on their own. We have created administrative, site maintenance and learning support teams across the Trust because our culture needs to be carried by our people in their hearts and minds to become instinctual, real and significant for them. 

In summary

Just as the power of an iceberg is in what lies beneath the surface, we need to recognise that for sustainability, depth and purpose, we need to have a strong culture.    

Time spent on ensuring we have firm foundations and on intentionally planning and managing a healthy Trust culture is time well spent. This clarity of purpose will also ensure that prospective employees, partners and schools can determine whether or not we are mutually compatible and can best serves the lives of our children and young people together.