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Creating a happy school culture - it starts at the top

Happy School Culture cow

If someone asked you to describe your school’s culture, what would you say? Is it a happy one? A stressed one? A supportive one?

Whatever the case, you know it must be the right one for your staff to thrive, that’s for sure. So in this blog post, we’ll explore exactly what school culture is and how you can make yours a happier one. 

What is school culture?

Culture can be described as your school’s character and personality. If it were a human being, you’d be able to describe it to friends. Culture is a combination of your school’s values and beliefs, as well as the attitudes and behaviours of the people in it. That’s why it sometimes feels like extended family. But instead of an aunt who can’t handle her sherry at Christmas, it’s the school business manager who can’t handle her prosecco at the staff party.

Whatever the culture in your school, it’s an important part of your team’s daily working life. It can either make them love their job...or hate it. Indeed, when people apply for jobs, it’s a bit of a gamble as to whether the culture will be right for them. If you’re not aligned with the values and ethos, coming to work everyday is extremely stressful.

Sometimes a school’s culture can shift too, particularly with leadership changes or a global pandemic which impacts everyone. Someone who behaved one way in the past, may now behave in another. 

If you’re aware that your school culture isn’t a happy one right now, you’re probably wondering how to change things. After all, a happy team makes all the difference. Not only to their own wellbeing, but to the children’s learning experiences. Happier staff means happier children, so it’s important to get it right.

But how?

Well, we’ve got some tips to help you.

How to create a happy school culture

Before we start, let’s get something straight. It’s unrealistic to expect your school’s culture to be continually happy, all of the time. It’s simply not possible - a bit like expecting someone’s personality to always be happy. Things will happen outside your control to upset the proverbial apple cart and it might take time to get things back on track. But if you’re willing to settle for a happy school culture most of the time, read on. 

Lead from the top

Happy school culture starts at the top. Headteachers need to lead by example. Happiness needs to be at the forefront of everything you do - for the children, the staff and the parents. Happy schools are brilliant places to be - we should know, we’ve worked with a few. 

When times get tough, it’s the happiest schools that are the most resilient. It’s not that they don’t find things challenging, it’s how they deal with those challenges that makes them stand out. 

We’re lucky to have Happiest School award winner, Dave McPartlin, from Flakefleet Primary School, as one of our speakers for Our Big Chat about…Thinking outside the tick box in November - if you haven’t got your ticket yet, why the heck not? Come and join us. 

Create strong values and vision 

People follow leaders with a strong vision. It’s impossible not to. It’s almost infectious. Not only that, vision encourages people to collaborate and work together. So when Ofsted comes knocking, you can be sure everyone’s on board for the ride. Your team wants something to believe in. To get behind. You want to be the Gareth Southgate to their England fan. 

Get clear on your vision and share it. Keep sharing it. Everyone from the deputy headteacher to the caretaker needs to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If they don’t want to be part of it, that’s their call. You only want people who are behind your vision anyway. You won’t find a Scottish footy fan amongst Gareth Southgate’s most ardent supporters. 

But vision will only go so far. It’s your school’s values that will underpin a happy culture. Communicate these often too, with staff and children alike, so even little Billy’s seventh cousin twice removed could tell someone about them. Discuss these values with your team. What does your school stand for? What values does it hold dear? Create them, repeat them and live them through your actions every single day.

Communicate like a boss 

Lack of communication creates a crappy culture, not a happy culture. In many schools, this is at the heart of many issues, including low staff morale. If you want people to feel happier as part of your school community, get your communication in tip-top shape. Now’s not the time to practise semaphore from the rooftop, you need your comms strategy to be at its best. 

But it’s not just about talking. It’s about listening too. Really listening. Being approachable and enabling conversations to happen. Ultimately people need to feel psychologically safe - just a posh way of saying they can speak up and not feel humiliated or punished for doing so. There’s a great talk by Amy Edmondson on psychological safety, so do watch it if you’d like further tips.

If people aren’t feeling happy, they need to be able to express this honestly, without fear of repercussions. It will also allow you to keep on top of any tension bubbling away under the surface, particularly towards the end of term when things feel more fraught than usual. 

Great relationships underpin great schools. 

Create clear boundaries and expectations

Happy school cultures have clear boundaries and expectations. Again, it’s about leading from the front on this and communicating clearly. If people know where they stand, it helps them feel happier. If you keep moving the goalposts and doing things in different ways for different people, your school community will quickly lose faith in you.

One boundary that often contributes to a happy school culture is around working hours and wellbeing. Finding a healthy balance and communicating what the expectations are is important, but so is leading by example. Head out earlier on a Friday. Share your weekend plans with the team. If your staff feel as though you never ‘clock off’ they won’t feel comfortable about clocking off either. 

Instead, they may feel a bit f*cked off instead. 

Have a laugh and have some fun 

One of the reasons we love our Happiest Schools is because there’s fun and laughter at the heart of all they do. Indeed, the wonderful Arthur Bugler call themselves ‘The Fun Factory’. 

But it’s not just about making things fun for the children, it’s about having a giggle with your staff too. Laughter does wonders for people’s mental health, wellbeing and overall engagement - all important when creating a happy-centred school. So think about how you could get everyone smiling on a more regular basis. 

Get together outside work when you can too. Being sociable enables teams to build connection and trust. Rather than imposing a ‘team day’ on INSET, why not ask your staff what they’d like to do from time-to-time? Again, communication is key to happier and more motivated staff. This includes being involved in their own personal and professional development.

By putting in place these key features of a happy school culture, you’ll be well on your way to a happier school community. All you need to do now is dig out your best Southgate-esque waistcoat and you’ll be all set. 

big chat about mental health logo


Are organisations and companies just paying lip service?
Join some of the most interesting and respected voices in positive psychology for our Our Big Chat about…Thinking outside the tick box, inaugural webinar. Our two and half hour interactive event will look at the best mental health strategies for organisations, identifying what works and what doesn’t.

Dave McPartlin:

Dave is the Headteacher of Flakefleet Primary School.
Creating the right environment for people and communities to flourish

Sunita Hirani

Sunita is one of the BBC’s key equality, diversity and inclusivity experts.
Why inclusion is essential for mental wellbeing

Professor Sir Cary Cooper

Cary is one the world’s most influential voices in occupational health and wellbeing.
Enhancing Mental Wellbeing at Work. Evidence based strategies for creating a wellbeing culture at work.

PSHE blog articles

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