School culture

by Louise Stoll


In this set article, Professor Louise Stoll explores the relationship between school culture and school improvement.

Complex and important concept

School culture is one of the most complex and important concepts in education. Schein (1985, p.6) considers the basic essence of an organisation’s culture to be:

the deeper level of basic assumptions and beliefs that are shared by members of an organisation, that operate unconsciously, and that define in a basic ‘taken for granted’ fashion an organisation’s view of itself and its environment.

These are the heart of school culture and what makes it so hard to grasp and change.

How we view the world

Culture describes how things are and acts as a screen or lens through which the world is viewed. In essence it defines reality for those within a social organisation, gives them support and identity and creates a framework for occupational learning.

Each school has a different reality or mindset of school life, often captured in the simple phrase, “the way we do things around here” (Deal & Kennedy, 1983). It also has its own mindset in relation to what occurs in its external environment.

Culture is, thus, “situationally unique” (Beare et al., 1989). A school’s culture is shaped by its history, context and the people in it.

Cultural change

A school’s age can impact cultural change.

  • In the early years of a new school, dominant values emanate from its “founders” and the school makes is culture explicit.
  • In midlife the most important aspects of the culture are embedded and taken for granted, and the culture is increasingly implicit. Change becomes more difficult because of less consciousness of the culture; it is harder to articulate and understand.
  • Maturity and/or stagnation and decline is reached if the school has ceased growing and responding to its environment (Fink, 1999). This stage is most problematic from the cultural change perspective.

Vary between primary and secondary

School cultures vary between primary and secondary schools (Cooper, 1988). 

In primary schools, care and control influence their culture (Hargreaves et al., 1996), such that when students leave primary school there is a feeling that have left a family (Ruddock, 1996).

In contrast secondary school culture is influenced not only by larger size and department structures, but by the very fundamental nature of teachers’ academic orientation (Hargreaves et al., 1996) – and the fragmented individualism (Hargreaves, 1982) that students experience in moving from one subject and teacher to another.

Influenced by the school community

Locally, a school’s community, including the students’ parents, may have their own conceptions of what a “real school” (Metz, 1991) is: “a real school is what I attended when I was a child”. Political and economic forces or changes in national policies can also influence what is valued at school.

Thrupp (1997) argues that the social mix of the school plays a major role in how it functions, largely because of the cumulative effects of how students relate to each other as a group. Essentially, students who attend the school flavour it in a particular way, through their own student culture.

Changes in society

Changes in society pose challenges to a school’s culture. Changes might relate to learning, the student population, organisational management, rapid technological developments or other societal changes. Such changes often demand rapid responses from a school.

Yet while culture changes as participants change, it can also be a stabilising force, particularly for those who have been part of the culture for a longer period. It can therefore appear problematic for those in search of quick fix changes because it often seems as though it is an unmoveable force.

While culture presents, therefore, the paradox of both being static and dynamic (Rossman et al., 1988), in reality it is constantly evolving (Hopkins et al., 1994) and being reconstructed (Angus, 1996).

Reflective questions

These reflective questions might guide you in your reading of this article:

  • What different subcultures can you see in your school?
  • Using Hargreaves’ four teaching cultures select the style that most closely represents your school’s culture. With collaborative culture being the desired style, how could you guide your staff towards this? If you feel that your school already manifests a collaborative culture, how can this be enhanced?
  • Are there aspects within your school’s culture that inhibit school improvement? How can these be overcome?
  • Analysing the micro-politics within your school, BOT, and community what key power issues pose difficulty for your school? How can these barriers be reduced/eradicated?


Extracts adapted from School Improvement Network’s Bulletin, No. 9. Autumn 1998 Institute of Education, University of London.

This article is an abbreviated version of the author’s chapter, School culture: Black hole or fertile garden for school improvement, in J. Prosser (Ed.). (1999). School culture. London: Paul Chapman.

Stoll, L. (2002). School culture. set: Research Information for Teachers, 3, pp 9-14. Reproduced with permission.

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