You can tell a school that is doing well. It self promotes. Staff brag and share results, parents congratulate themselves on their good choice and kids say, “Our school is the best”. The powerful thing about all this positive talk is that it creates a culture of pride and success. It creates a mindset that allows for innovation and experimentation and it positively reinforces people who work hard to keep working hard or work harder. Most importantly, it has a powerful effect on kids and their learning. It’s like magic.
The ultimate reward for a school should be when a child is able to say, “I am in the very best place for me”. That sort of statement should apply to kids with all different talents and ambitions. It isn’t just about academic success. Children need to feel nurtured and supported in their physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. They need to feel they are seen and valued. Only then will they move into the comfort that allows flow and deep learning.
Creating this magic is the challenge. So how is this achieved? The Kings College Principal, Ian Elder was recognised in 2016 by the Principals Australia Institute for his outstanding leadership. He is a leader I greatly admire. I talked to him about what creates a winning culture in schools and he identified these ten points.
Ten Qualities Of A Good School
1. The right people are appointed and placed in the right positions.
Staff shouldn’t stay in the same place doing the same thing for too long. There needs to be enthusiasm and a sense of direction for every staff member, including the principal.
2. There is the understanding that first and foremost, a school must provide an outstanding education.
After that, it can be whatever the stakeholders want… whether it is religious, sporting, innovative, performing arts, leadership, etc. Parents and students need to know and appreciate that order of priority too.
3. The right questions are asked of the right people.
Constant communication between staff, students and parents is desirable and necessary. A child should be able to say, “My teacher knows me and understands how I learn”.
4. The question is constantly asked, “Could we be better?”
No matter how great it is, no school can afford to be complacent. The way you’ve always done things may be very good, but could it be better? Principals must listen to parents, students and staff. “They can’t listen in order to counter or defend, but to really understand. They need to explain the direction and decisions of the school in order to make sure everyone is ‘on the same page’. The culture is ‘Yes, you can’, not ‘Yes, you will’.”
5. One on one communication with students is vital.
Yes…sometimes it is easier to deliver information to a whole group, but sometimes the time spent on one to one meetings is worth it. Kids need to be seen and heard and their opinions and ideas need to be valued. Education doesn’t happen to them, it happens with them. This is where the quietly disengaged are often discovered. They don’t make a fuss, they get decent grades, but they aren’t striving or excelling. One interview can completely turn that around.
6. Students are trusted.
It is accepted that boundaries will be pushed and some kids will mess up. But most won’t. Most will grow when they are trusted and allowed responsibility. It is important that a school say ‘yes’ to students when it can.
7. The principal trusts the staff.
Once they have the right staff in the right place, principals should let them be. With responsibility must also come some autonomy and authority.
8. Expectations are set, and feedback is given.
Students need to be told exactly what is expected of them. For example, it isn’t alright to leave an exam early. You must stay and check your work and improve it…every time. Statements like, “Try your best” can’t be measured. “Improve by 5% using these particular strategies” is better. Likewise, specific feedback is incredibly important to students. A mark of 7/10 and a comment of ‘good’ achieves nothing. It fails to tell the student how to improve. Similarly, staff need specific feedback and coaching. Successful schools have a culture of strong professional development and feedback.
9. Success is celebrated, both internally and externally.
Sudents who excel in their final exams, sports or cultural endeavours are celebrated. Success is posted on Facebook and in local papers and in any other way appropriate. The culture of success is reliant on buy-in from the community as well as the school.
10. There is a culture of ongoing learning and respect among staff.
Kids see the way staff treat each other and that is what they mimic. They also see teachers learning; getting further qualifications, doing professional reading, learning from each other, learning from students and learning from mistakes. In good schools, staff are involved at a systemic level. An academic leader in the school should have marked external exams and been on committees and focus groups that help determine the future of education. A school needs its finger on the pulse.