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Creating a strong school culture to improve behaviour and wellbeing

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Date published 12 March 2024

“Culture is everywhere, so learning how to reflect on, improve and shape the culture of your school will inevitably have a positive impact on everybody,” Andrew Knight says.

Andrew is headteacher at St John's Church of England Primary School, part of Bradford Diocesan Academies Trust (BDAT). Together with the trust, Andrew has reviewed school systems and created a behaviour strategy to evolve the school culture.

What is school culture?

For Andrew, a good culture is vital for the success of a school.

School culture refers to shared beliefs and values which are expressed through policies and practices, and interactions between staff, pupils and leaders. A positive and supportive school culture creates the conditions for good behaviour. Similarly, strategies for good behaviour can enable a healthy and happy school culture.

Andrew decided to take part in Ambition Institute’s National Professional Qualification (NPQ) in Leading Behaviour and Culture to help him articulate what a positive school culture would look like for St John’s. He also wanted to identify which approaches to behaviour were working and which could be improved by drawing on evidence.

The programme was delivered locally by BDAT who partner with Ambition Institute to deliver high quality professional development programmes to teachers and leaders in their schools and wider network.

“We used to find that after playtime some pupils would have lots of disputes that then rolled into the classroom; particularly in years five and six. A member of the senior leadership team might go into the classroom to speak to the children about what expectations had not been met but not explain to or teach the children what the correct behaviour was. And ultimately, this would actually undermine the authority of the teacher,” Andrew says.

“We had feedback from teachers that too much of their day could be spent dealing with behaviour like this, which was then taking away from teaching and learning. Part of why I did the NPQ for Leading Behaviour and Culture was because I wanted to see how we could reduce that.”

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A vision to improve pupil and staff wellbeing

Using his learnings from the programme, Andrew considered the needs of pupils, parents and staff. He then created a “clear and explicitly articulated” vision for behaviour at St John’s which has informed how all colleagues, from office staff to senior leadership, interact with pupils and their families.

The first line of St John’s vision is that ‘children and their families always come first.’ When this vision for behaviour was first introduced, Andrew worked with staff to practise how they might approach different situations in a way which put the wellbeing of pupils first. Now the vision has been embedded, it forms part of the induction to the school for new starters.

Andrew says that having a “strong vision and a culture” at St John’s has meant that all staff now have a framework to refer to when making decisions. He says that this empowers staff to make informed judgements based on the wellbeing of pupils.

“The expectation of behaviour is the same for all pupils and for any member of staff,” Andrew says, which has led to improved wellbeing and staff retention.

There is now less time spent on discipline, which means there is more “space to have conversations with pupils as individuals” and staff can offer genuine one-to-one support for pupils who need it. Andrew says that this means that staff feel fulfilled in their roles as they can do what they came into the profession to do.

“We now have consistent systems in place across school, so the behaviour and conduct of pupils is very good, which means teachers can do the two things they came into the profession to do: teach and make a difference.”

Photo of a teacher being coached by another member of staff.

Creating a shared language of behaviour

“We don't just say to people, ‘drive your car’: we teach them to stop at red lights and look left and right. In a similar way, it’s important that everybody knows what the expectation is when it comes to behaviour at school,” Andrew says.

On the programme Andrew learnt that consistent, rigorous and positive approaches can help promote good behaviour, in turn supporting pupil learning. He was inspired to consider the processes and language staff used in the classroom to develop a clearly defined behaviour policy. This includes how staff should respond in different situations and the expectation of conduct from pupils.

While developing this policy, Andrew considered scenarios where language and conduct could be more clearly defined. He identified that often teachers would struggle to get their class to settle, so decided to define a process for this situation.

Andrew first asked every teacher the type of language they used when asking their class to focus. From these conversations, he realised that teachers would ask their class in different ways. To create consistency, he worked with teachers to decide on phrases they preferred which then formed part of a script all staff could follow.

“When thinking of language, we try to encourage our pupils as much as we possibly can, rather than using negative words when speaking to them,” Andrew says. “For example, if they are a bit noisy in the classroom then we would say ‘impress me by sitting ready’, rather than ‘be quiet’.”

“Pupils know that ‘impress me by sitting ready’ means eight things, including sitting silently with arms on the table and not holding stationery,” Andrew says. “Creating this script means we can rehearse it with the children like you would rehearse any other skill. It then means that the teacher, or any visiting supply teacher, can say ‘impress me by sitting ready’ and expect the same outcome.”

Andrew has already seen the impact of shared language. By focusing on implementing consistent approaches to behaviour and discipline, pupils know what staff expect from them. This has meant they feel secure at school and as a result more able to learn.

“Pupils settle more quickly,” Andrew says, “They learn from day one what’s expected of them, so they don’t have to relearn expectations as they move through school. They feel safe and the demand on their working memory is less because they know what they need to do at certain times of the day.”

“We’ve also found that pupils who are on the special needs register tell us that what’s expected of them is clearer – they aren't having to try and read the mind of adults all day, because it is always the same, regardless of the adult.”


Working as a leader on the National Professional Qualification in Leading Behaviour and Culture

“When I first mooted the idea that I would be interested in doing the National Professional Qualification in Leading Behaviour and Culture, the feedback that I had from colleagues was that they didn’t think it was designed for headteachers, but was for middle leaders. I was surprised because I am really pleased that I did it.”

Andrew decided to do the NPQ for Leading Behaviour and Culture because he recognised the impact it could have at a whole school level. “Where I’ve seen schools with more than one colleague on the programme, it has had a greater impact because more leaders are agreeing and understand the purpose and rationale behind focusing on behaviour and culture.”

The programme is suitable for anyone with responsibilities for leading behaviour and pupil wellbeing, or anyone aspiring to lead in this area. As a headteacher, Andrew now has a strong understanding of behaviour and culture at a whole-school level. He also has oversight of all staff, so was able to start making positive changes with their input straight away.

Andrew says that the programme has formed the “bedrock” of the culture at St John’s. “I learnt that culture should be interwoven in everything that you do: it determines the behaviour of every colleague and child in the school and it doesn't exclude any members of staff,” he says.

The knowledge Andrew gained has enabled him to work alongside and support other leaders within the trust to develop their school’s vision for behaviour. This has included working with the trust’s network of Professional Learning Communities which champion high-quality continuous professional development and the sharing of best practice.

“If everybody is living and breathing that same culture,” Andrew says, “then they're all working in the same direction consistently, which collectively makes everybody's job easier.”

Learn how to create a culture where staff and pupils thrive with the National Professional Qualification in Leading Behaviour and Culture.

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