Culture + Systems: The Spirit and The Letter


This is a slide I’ve used multiple times in various CPD sessions.  It’s a theme I return to over and over.   In numerous aspects of school leadership, I feel it’s important to consider the need to develop both the systems and the culture within which they operate, explicitly, deliberately and simultaneously.  Systems don’t work unless the culture is right – we are not machines and people are naturally subversive in the face of directives they don’t support. Equally,  seeking culture change without good systems usually ends in a confused mess of well-intentioned ineffectiveness.

A good example of this is a school behaviour system.  It is vital to explore the parameters of the culture you are trying to establish, ideally working with all stakeholders.  What will it look like when we’ve got there? What  kind of relationships do we want to exist between students and staff?  Are we happy to establish an explicitly strict/disciplinarian culture or do we want something more flexible/relaxed? How much autonomy should staff have?  How do students express their views or tackle their perceived injustices?  Would we sanction a child with a difficult home life who forgets their equipment?

There is then a mutually reinforcing link between the systems you develop and the culture; you can’t have one without the other.  Even if you haven’t decided what kind of culture you want, a culture emerges from the systems in the way they operate. Sometimes this isn’t what you want so, to change the culture, you need to change the systems.  Quite often it is the other way around; the systems are fine in theory but it is the spirit in which people are using the systems that is problematic.  Some people are obsessed with the letter of the system – and fall down because they forget about the spirit; the culture.   The point is that you need to consider both aspects and work out where the solutions lie.

Another example is with staff development.  You need to create a culture that staff enjoy working in – especially when the day-to-day work is challenging.  This includes the way people speak to each other, the nature of directives given by people in positions of power, the degree of autonomy, flexibility and trust that leaders accept or even celebrate; the degree of respect given to workload issues.  But it also includes the structure of CPD, the content of the sessions, the degree of input staff have, the language in the performance review documentation and the degree to which people have to jump through hoops for pay progression.  It is systems +culture once again. There’s no use hoping for a high-trust professional culture if your performance appraisal system runs counter to that – or if you still grade lessons, for example.


I often find that, at interviews and in discussions, people can toss out the notion of culture as if it exists as entity that can be willed into being. “We need a culture where…..” But, when asked how they would establish that culture, there is a troubled silence. The systems thinking is lacking.   At the other end, omitting the issue of culture is equally problematic. I think government ministers fall into this trap.  Who would follow Nicky Morgan to her promised land?  For me, she’s completely inept when it comes to creating a culture within which her policy ideas can take hold.  There’s an absence of vision; there is no spirit; no sense of purpose.  And that’s a recipe for frustration and failure. At the same time, Labour is often guilty of the opposite: vague notions unsupported by any substantial policy proposals. Equally frustrating. 

So, in moving schools forward, we need to be asking these questions side by side:

What’s the plan?  Have we got the culture right? Have got the systems right?   Do they work in a mutually reinforcing manner? Where does the letter of the policy require us to operate in the right spirit for it to work? 




  1. Thanks for a post that highlights the usual problem of systems. You are spot-on when you talk about teachers operating the policy with spirit … In my experience some teachers use policies to hide behind their own lack of skills, especially in the area of behaviour management. The lack of one-one CPD to support their improvement might suggest a deficiency in the CPD system; yes, all intertwined. Most teachers I worked with only used the system when necessary as they had the skills to prevent rather than cure. In other words, they used the system in the spirit in which it was created and intended; as a support mechanism. Thanks anyway Tom for another interesting post. John

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s