Establishing school values

One of the things that successful leaders do is set direction. This involves many things but must start with purpose – we come to work each day. Part of this is building a shared vision for the future and then carefully but consistently communicating that to the community. For the purpose of this post, we’ll take that as done because I want to explore the translation of that into action – the beginning of implementing that vision. If the vision is the why the next consideration is the how.

Just as a vision needs to be collaboratively built, so do the social norms that may take us there. Those norms exists in our schools with or without our influence and so it is prudent for us as leaders to deliberately shape them in order to realise our aims. The first driver of such norms is the values that the school community feels are important. Some leaders may have been lucky enough to pick up knowledge of establishing and reinforcing values through the lottery of experience but for those who haven’t, making this explicit formal knowledge that can be learned and applied seems eminently useful. There are a number of considerations for establishing values listed below.

Edgar Schein talks about three levels of culture. What we do is most visible; less so what we say and even less so what we believe. The paradox is that despite being the least visible, our deeply held assumptions are arguable the most important and this is where our values have a significant role to play – they are the starting point of building the desired culture in our schools. It is imperative that identifying these is a collaborative process and that they are representative of the whole community, otherwise we risk a lower rate of buy-in.

Schools having values is rather common but they way they are organised and phrased can sometimes limit their effectiveness. A common mistake is having too many which renders them forgettable. Another is to phrase them as abstract nouns rather than verbs. It is far easier to act on the value be honest than it is to act on the value of integrity for example.

Stories are psychologically privileged and so using story to define values once they have been defined makes it easier to communicate the values widely and for them to understood and remembered.

Once established, values need to retain a prominent place in school life and as such, leaders should deliberately map out the drivers for doing so. Some are examples are below:

A commonly stated ideal is that values are lived, not laminated. This alludes to the mistake of displaying values but not referring to them. Arguably the most important driver is how everyone treats each and day by day. These interactions are the manifestations of our values but we cannot assume that everyone will always do so. Leaders need to model the values in action, fill the windscreen with stories of how the successes of others and even break down the norms into specific behaviours that are desirable.

It is common for values to be used to advertise the school on websites and newsletters – they are after all what makes one school different to another. Community events – any opportunity where stakeholders come together are perfect times to not just state values but to exemplify, through story, how those values have manifested in that particular event. Similarly, recruitment should be built around sharing and identifying alignment with our values and when we have selected the right candidate, thorough induction helps new recruits to assimilate into those norms.

Our recognition systems should be built around our values precisely because they are a driver for reinforcing them. The recognition systems amplify the norms that we want to maintain and, whether the system is for children or for colleagues, play a very important role.

Finally, our values act as a safety mechanism for the decisions that staff make every day. Bigger decisions that affect the whole school should be run by the values openly as a test on their suitability. This is somewhat easier to control as a leader than the many decisions that all colleagues make each day but if we establish and reinforce our values in the ways described, we can be confident that all will act in line with them whichever decision is necessary.

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