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As an avid viewer of MasterChef (the Australian version, of course!), I find that schools are much like the world of gastronomy. Where master chefs can take the same set of staple ingredients and craft entirely distinct dishes, schools, too, have a common foundation made up of students, staff, parents, facilities, governance and policies, yet may differ greatly. I believe that what sets each school apart is its unique culture – the secret sauce. The difference between a good dish and an extraordinary one often lies in that secret sauce; the culture of a school can transform an educational institution from merely functional to truly exceptional.

At Repton Abu Dhabi, our commitment to developing and maintaining our unique school culture is the number one priority on our school improvement plan. This is not because we have a negative culture or are concerned about the culture; it is because we recognise that our culture sets the foundation for everything else we do. This year, we have dedicated considerable effort to understanding what culture is and what is specific and unique to the culture that we want to replicate, reward and reinforce.

Before delving into the importance of school culture, it’s crucial to grasp the foundation of organisational culture theory developed by Edgar Schein. Schein proposed a framework with three levels of culture, each playing a vital role in shaping an organisation’s identity and behaviour:

Artefacts and Symbols (Visible Culture): The outermost layer includes the visible aspects of culture, such as the physical environment, dress code, rituals, and symbols. In schools, this could be represented by uniforms, the layout of classrooms, and traditional events like assemblies and graduation ceremonies.

Espoused Beliefs and Values (Espoused Culture): This level goes deeper, exploring the shared beliefs, values, and norms that a school community upholds. For example, if the school values inclusivity, diversity, and open communication, these principles should be reflected in the language used, vision statements, and written policies.

Basic Assumptions (Underlying Culture): The core of an organisation’s culture are the unspoken and often unconscious beliefs and assumptions that guide behaviour. In a school setting, this could involve fundamental attitudes toward education, student-teacher relationships, and the role of the school in the wider community and society.

As we have established, every school, much like a professional kitchen, has a set of common or similar ingredients:

  1. Facilities: Whether it’s classrooms, libraries, or sports facilities, these spaces serve as the canvas upon which learning takes place.
  2. Policies: Schools adhere to various regulations, academic guidelines, and disciplinary policies that set the rules of the game.
  3. Expectations: The community, including students, parents, and staff, often shares certain expectations regarding academic standards, behaviour, and values.
  4. Structures: Organisational structures define roles and responsibilities within the school, such as administrative hierarchies, teacher-student ratios, and curriculum frameworks.

These common ingredients are brought to life by the secret sauce of school culture. So what’s in the sauce? Much like a magician, a good chef will never share his secret, but I am willing to divulge some of what we believe makes for the secret sauce at Repton Abu Dhabi:

1 cup of empathetic leadership: the leadership team of a school plays a central role in shaping its culture and modelling behavioural norms. Empathetic leaders create an environment where teachers and staff feel valued and understood. A school’s culture should provide psychological safety, which encourages the open exchange of ideas. This, in turn, contributes to a more positive and collaborative school culture.

1/2 tablespoon of clear direction and strong values: A well-defined vision that clearly communicates the school’s purpose, ambitions and goals ensures that everyone strives for the same outcome. Core values that are authentically espoused will guide decision-making and behaviour within the school.

A pinch of trust and empowerment: In both the kitchen and the classroom, the creative process is paramount. Teachers design learning experiences, drawing from a deep understanding of their students, pedagogical research, their unique teaching style, and their passion for their subject matter. The secret ingredient that elevates both cooking and education is a culture that trusts, empowers and expects teachers to indulge in the creative processes.

3 teaspoons of connection, communication and community: A strong connection among students, staff, and parents fosters an environment where everyone feels valued and included. Effective communication ensures that ideas and concerns are heard and addressed, promoting transparency and trust. A close-knit community enriches the learning experience and ensures everyone is pulling in the same direction.

The above is far from a definitive list of ingredients, but they are certainly integral to our secret sauce. In my experience, schools with distinctive and intentional cultures create exceptional learning experiences that leave a lasting, positive impact on students. Just as a secret sauce can harmonise ingredients and elevate a dish to gourmet status, school culture transforms a school into a vibrant and engaging place of intellectual curiosity and aspiration.