Great School Leadership 1: Ethos

Snapshot from the KEGS Prospectus.. ethos projection at work.
Snapshot from the KEGS Prospectus.. ethos projection at work.

Great School Leadership 1: Ethos

This is the first in a series of five blogs about leadership. In a (probably pointless) attempt to capture the key elements of the role of leaders in five words, I’m using the following headings:

1. Ethos 2. Vision 3. Strategy 4. People 5. Communication

All of these areas overlap and are mutually reinforcing; the order is really just a structure to help organise my thoughts.

Every school has an ethos; a set of values that are manifested in the activities and interactions of everyday life. In many ways the ethos is the sum of all the other aspects dealt with in this series but it is something that can be planned, shaped and made explicit.

The same is true of a Department within a school. As a leader of a team, you have an opportunity to create the ethos that permeates your classrooms, offices and corridors and all the meetings and discussions that you engage in with colleagues.

I’ve always believed that the ethos at every level in a school is a major contributor to educational success. It is also a key factor in recruiting and retaining staff. The messages that you give as a leader are one of the main drivers of the values system that you wish to promote; but it is the actions you take that really underpin it.

Your ethos might convey messages about the following:

Student Relationships and discipline :

What are the behaviours that are expected  and what is absolutely forbidden? Which boundaries are enforced absolutely?  Is your ethos one based on warm positive relationships? Is it based on strict discipline? Or both?   Do teachers challenge students about poor behaviour? Do teachers and students engage in friendly conversations? Are confrontational approaches accepted?  Is the school laid-back and liberal or is it more strict and ordered?

Learning and the curriculum: 

Is learning given the highest priority in your routine business? Do you teach as Head or can you at least discuss pedagogy with teachers across the curriculum? Do your Heads of Department give themselves all the top sets or do they take on the most challenging groups? Does the curriculum convey ‘challenge and excellence for all’?  Does the curriculum enable you to provide the rounded education described in the prospectus or does it suggest  5A*-C with English and Maths matters more than anything. Do you value sport, performing arts, languages, humanities, RE.  What is the message if Dance has more time than Geography? Is that the message you want to give?

Excellence and inclusion:

Do you explicitly promote the possibility of students getting A*s, or of going to Oxford or to study Medicine or Law at UCL? Or might you be suggesting that this is for other people?  Do you give value to alternative pathways, to technical learning and to academic learning.  Does the school feel like somewhere a gifted academic child would thrive? Do you celebrate an intellectual, culturally rich life in the messages you give? Does it feel like somewhere less privileged or less able students are nurtured, challenged and enabled to explore wider horizons? 

Hard work and effort:

Do you create conditions where students are expected to work very hard, focusing on hard graft in lessons alongside all the engagement. Do you place a high value on homework? Do you promote engagement and fun as part of the learning or do you emphasise grit and determination? Is there room for both?

Social responsibility and equality:

Do you promote the idea that students have a responsibility to serve their communities, locally nationally and even globally? Does that lead to a broader view of the school’s role in providing a rounded education? Do you actively tackle racism?  What about the homophobic banter that students persist with? Would a gay or transgender student feel that they belonged and were accepted in your school? What about a Muslim, Christian or Atheist? What about a kid who can’t afford all the gear?

Professional standards and expectations:

Do you set high standards for staff by modelling it and securing buy-in through developing a positive high-morale atmosphere? Are you able to challenge people to improve without creating a culture of fear and intimidation? Do you use the capability procedures when you need to, sticking strictly to the process with scrupulous fairness? Do you make staff feel valued for their contributions and celebrate the excellent work that they do? Is it a rewarding, positive place to work… or is it all a bit confrontational and driven by power-politics and control mechanisms?

Professional learning and the scope for autonomy:

Does professional development have a high status at the school? Do you allow people the freedom to guide their own CPD or is always all-in, top-down delivery because you feel you know best about what everyone needs?  Can teachers initiate their own projects or challenge the orthodox view without fear of recriminations? Can you create a culture of enquiry without cynicism?  Do you push a prescribed view of excellent practice – such as might be derived from an OfSTED report – or do you engage staff in shaping their own?

Collaboration and collective accountability; 

Does team-work matter? Do you have space for people to work alone if they prefer it? Do you encourage and facilitate inter-departmental collaboration? Do you project an ‘all in it together’ attitude,  or is very much about individual results pressure, performance evidence and back-covering?

The weight given to performance measures:

Are you able to evaluate performance in an intelligent nuanced way that takes account of a range of variables and uncertainties or are you driven by the decimal points on the spreadsheet? To what extent does data reinforce or challenge your philosophy of education?

The school’s role in the community:

Is the school rooted in its community or is the drawbridge up? Do parents have a voice? Are they welcomed in or are they just the ‘bloomin’ pushy/useless parents’ that bring nothing but hassle?

Staff and student well-being:

Do you give people time to see their kids in the year assembly or time to take their mum to hospital? Do you make staff feel looked after, taking away as many tasks as you can so they can do their main roles properly? Do you make sure each child is known and cared for regardless of their behaviour or academic record?

Student voice: 

Do students feel they are listened to? Do they have any say in how the school is run and in how their learning is organised? Do students have opportunities to take on leadership roles, to express their ideas publicly and to be consulted on major changes?

I have my own biases and prejudices in all of these things. There are some areas where the ethos I want to create isn’t present yet.  I have my own personal idiosyncrasies and limitations… I can’t necessarily be the Head who delivers the ‘ideal ethos’ that I have in my mind.

However, it seems to me that seeking to create the ethos you want should be the key driver of all you do.  It pays to engage in activities where people in a team – or in the whole staff – have a chance to contribute to an ethos-building process. A whole school ethos is the sum of the contributions of all the people in it…creating maximum alignment around a shared ethos at an early stage is a key task for anyone new in a leadership role.

What do you want your classroom ethos to be?How do you want your colleagues to feel about working with you?
How would you want students, parents, teachers to feel about learning, belonging, contributing as members of the school community?

Thinking about these things helps to plan the actions and the messages you need to take things forward. For me, this is a core and ever-present leadership task. Arguably it is more important than any amount of action planning,data analysis or strategic thinking… The spirit of the school isn’t as intangible as it sounds.. it’s the daily reality that surrounds you and everyone else.  It pays to make that spirit what you want it to be.

Next post will look at Vision.

See also:

From Plantation Thinking to Rainforest Thinking

Creating the Conditions for Great Teachers to Thrive

The Anatomy of High Expectations

The Force Field Analogy: A Leadership Analogy

KEGS Assemblies: Ethos, Aspirations, Spirit


  1. The founding director at ebbw fawr learning community has plagiarised this entire blog and passed it off as his own thoughts on the topic of ethos.


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