Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Assistant Headteacher Culture and Curriculum Anna Ward shares what she has learned as she has worked to develop student culture here at Durrington.

When looking at creating the culture you want for your students in order that they excel in every area of school life, you need a system that rewards and recognises a range of achievements. Here is what I’ve learnt three years on from launching our student culture strategy at Durrington. 

One: Take your time to get it right for your setting

We’ve all experienced gimmicks and schemes in the past which have fallen flat. The good news is our profession is becoming increasingly evidence informed, which can only be a good thing. We have a wealth of knowledge about how to help students retain knowledge and make good progress. Library shelves are brimming with professional development books on how to question, plan, feed back and assess effectively. So when given my brief, the first thing I did was to ask to be pointed in the direction of the evidence about creating student culture, but I soon realised that with something so personal to your own setting, this wasn’t going to be something I could simply magpie. It was really important to me that we were able to recognise students for a multitude of reasons. 

I worry that sometimes, as teachers, we fall into a trap of recognising the students that find it the easiest to do well academically and this comes at the cost of the self concept of those who don’t find it so easy. These students are often the ones that we struggle to engage with as they can be lost in the system or demotivated. Therefore, I decided that if I wanted to embed a culture that recognised each and every student, I had to find a way to do this inside and outside of the building. At Durrington, we see ourselves as a team and community and this underpins all we do with our core principles of kindness, aspiration, perseverance, pride (KAPP), driving this. These values had been chosen before I started but they summarised everything we wanted our students to embody. It wasn’t going to be quick and rushed out, it needed to be done right, which meant taking time and having patience. From the first conversation to rolling the scheme out took 6 months so take your time and get it right first time, even if that is frustrating.  As the EEF guidance points to, a significant “explore” phase is key to successful implementation.

Two: seek out the critics!

To understand what your school needs in order to get the culture right, you have to really understand what makes your staff and students tick. So, I spoke to the staff who had been there for years and the staff who were most front facing with students. They told me what would and wouldn’t work when I showed them my plans, even though sometimes it was hard to take and this sent me back to the drawing board. When I first took the KAPP rewards system to my fellow AHT who I’d sought out for her honesty and in depth knowledge of DHS, she gave me some brilliant, if slightly brutal advice. This was invaluable to me as it meant I was able to make tweaks to what I already had, before launching it to the rest of SLT. By the time I was ready to go public, I was confident that I had a system that would be effective, efficient and most importantly would work for us. 

Three: Overcommunicate the vision. 

In order for our KAPP principles to be embedded, every member of our community needed to know what it stood for. That way when we linked the rewards and recognition to them, it would have more of an impact. Make sure your principles are displayed everywhere and that people know what they mean and how they embody your culture. KAPP is on every assembly slide and linked into all our school presentations and lessons. It is part of our shared language and everyone knows what it stands for and what it represents. Without shared language and understanding, you can have the best strategy but it won’t have the impact you are looking for. As Daniel Coyle says, it should be ‘as subtle as a punch in the nose’.

Four: celebrate the positives!

Teenagers can be very stubborn and it can be hard when they don’t seem to buy in to what you want them to. It’s important to remember your moral purpose. Mine is the belief that every student deserves to be recognised. Some will embrace the spotlight and some will shy away from it but remember the recognition is what is important. Sometimes I have the problem that not all students want to wear the badge as they think it makes them look uncool, especially with the older year groups. However, a large number do wear their badges and momentum continues to build. The student and staff voice has been overwhelmingly positive, with many commenting on how it has led to ‘corridor conversations’ and the opportunity to get to know their students and form strong relationships. For me when I am on gate duty, it is always a highlight of my day to see the large number of students coming down the driveway, proudly wearing the badges and the number grows all the time. We launched our first Pride of Durrington awards in July 2022 and this was a huge moment reflecting how far we have come. I am really proud of KAPP and know the rest of Team Durrington are too.

Anna Ward

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