The Importance of “ethos”
There was an INSET day when a former head decided it would be fun to run a little quiz, a ‘fill in the missing word(s)’ kind of quiz. It went something like this:
No ______ classes; Supported _________; Schools exist for _______; Get your __________; We ___________; and on it went, with a perceptible wriggling, squirming, shuffling from just a few staff. What was this? Some kind of mind-reading exercise? These were the new staff. Others were frantically scribbling their answers, as obvious to them as the pens in their hands.
The quiz was designed to reveal the extent to which school catchphrases were still permeating through the consciousness of the staff, catchphrases which have been used in briefings, staff meetings, line management sessions and appraisals for years. These catchphrases make explicit the ethos of the school and act as anthems for day-to-day conduct, motivation, sense of purpose and direction.
Take, for example, “No unteachable classes”, a pledge from the Head to staff that he would ensure that the pastoral systems would be rigorous, and that subject teachers would be free to focus on the main thing that mattered: teaching. That tenet continues, almost twenty years after its first announcement. Closely linked to this, is the teacher’s responsibility. We say “Schools exist for the education of pupils, not the employment of teachers”, a very clear reminder of our core purpose, and akin to the next “Supported individual accountability” which expresses the workings of our line- management system. Our school was working to internal targets long before this became the national norm, and in order to assure that expectations became actions, those actions were supported and monitored by those above.
In order to achieve targets, we were directed to “Get your improvements in early”, ensuring that Year 7s are inducted in the ways of the school as quickly as possible, in behaviour and classroom terms. We run a very successful and widely lauded peer mentoring system, again part of the package of support that runs through the school, matching challenge with the guidance needed to ensure expectations are met. Teachers are prompted to “Compel learning” – engagement in class is not an option, it’s a pre-requisite, and staff are expected to deliver lessons that meet the needs of learners…the educational and subject development needs, not according to the whims of personality or political diktat.
Underpinning all of these is the core expression “We set the standard”. Good behaviour is the norm, regardless of the habits of home or neighbourhood. Our town hit the headlines a few years ago, when a 9pm curfew was imposed on the local teenagers. Visitors from other towns came to see us in school, to see how we tackled these feral youths. They arrived at reception, having walked up the drive past non-vandalised courts and immaculate playing fields where pupils in impeccable kit undertook their lunchtime extra-curricular sports, and asked to be directed to “the other school…the one with the bad kids”. Soon after, they were convinced that yes this was the only secondary school for miles around, and yes this was the town in the news, but no – those children do not behave badly once they cross the threshold.
Knowledge of our pupils is key here. Form tutors do an excellent job of taking time to talk to tutees one-to-one. We speak of “the story for each child” so that, for all our expectations, there are exceptions, we realise, and some children might take a while longer to come round to our way of thinking, or might not be able to achieve exam successes – we must ensure we provide every opportunity here. Very few NEETs are recorded year on year because we plan ahead for our more vulnerable children, get to know local colleges, alternative providers and employers well enough to know who would suit our pupils’ requirements. We speak of being “fiercely ambitious” for each one. We are a true comprehensive – some children are pre-literate and pre-numerate, others will go on to study in ancient institutions.
More than any other catchphrase, though, there is one that reminds us that all children are precious and their life chances must not be wasted. We ask “Would it do for my child?” If what we offer is not good enough for teachers to entrust their own children to their colleagues, why should anybody else? As it happens, lots of our staff live locally and their children attend feeder primaries before coming to us. We speak of “N-T-S-ness” as a “tangible quality, the characteristic spirit of our culture, era, and community as manifested in our attitudes and aspirations” : ethos.