Anyone who’s visited a range of schools soon notices the subtle but distinctive feel of different school cultures. In a research report recently published by the DfE we’ve set out in detail how these subtle differences can be pinned down in more concrete terms, and identified key practices that lie behind the culture of high-performing schools (which we define as schools where disadvantaged pupils have consistently done well).
The report highlights the ambitious comparisons that leaders of highperforming schools make with other schools, such as comparing the attainment of their most disadvantaged pupils with the national average for all pupils.
We visited 12 high-performing schools and 11 lower-performing schools around the country. Our case studies, focused on primary schools, involved hundreds of interviews with senior leaders, teachers, governors and parents, focus groups and a diary task with pupils. Observations of dozens of classrooms, playgrounds and dinner halls allowed us to make detailed insights into schools’ cultures and practices, and how these are perceived and embodied by staff, pupils and parents.
Compared to lower-performing schools, we found that high-performing schools believed more firmly that their practices would have an impact in relation to attendance, behaviour, and parental aspirations and expectations.
High-performing schools celebrated pupil success and achievements at every opportunity, building such celebrations into their weekly timetable and actively including parents. They also dedicated more resources, including non-teaching members of staff, to work with parents and families.
These schools further saw the recruitment and development of NQTs as a positive opportunity, rather than a source of concern over whether they could be adequately supported, and prioritised teachers’ career development.
High-performing schools also worked hard to ensure a positive culture reached every corner of their school – for instance, all teaching and non-teaching staff held high expectations of behaviour everywhere, not just in the classroom. Finally, these schools’ heads taught regularly, so that that they could support new teachers and share their expertise.
Overall, we were struck by how much schools have in common when it comes to their cultures and practices – from their systems for behaviour management to their encouragement of high expectations. However, even when schools appeared to do things the same way on the surface, closer inspection revealed that high-performing schools often stood apart by using a wider range of strategies to support disadvantaged pupils, deploying strategies more consistently across the school, and ensuring positive cultures reached every corner of school life – and often beyond the gates.
Sam Baars is director of research at the policy research and campaigning organisation LKMco.