Why culture matters even more in cash-strapped schools and colleges

David Price
5 min readOct 31, 2022
©John Biggs Illustration — XP School Used with permission

When my most recent book, ‘The Power Of Us’, came out in 2020 we were at the start of a global pandemic. My central argument — that organisations of all types needed to focus upon getting their culture right, especially in times of crisis — was about to be tested to an extent I could not have imagined.

The book contains case studies from around the world, from WD-40 Company in California, to The Liger Leadership Academy, in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. During the research phase (2017–2020) there were the big societal shifts to deal with (the rise of authoritarianism and social movements, the worsening climate emergency, Brexit, to name but four). I remember writing a section ‘When will there be good news?’, never dreaming that things were about to get much, much, worse. You don’t need me to list the seismic political and financial ‘events’ of the past two years.

The net result is that public services, including schools and colleges, are facing significant challenges, businesses are already going to the wall, and there’s no imminent prospect of anything but a long drawn-out illegal occupation by Putin.

Set against that, it would be natural for education leaders to regard the nurturing of culture as a low priority — someway below fixing leaks and paying gas bills. But I’d argue that this is precisely the time for education leaders to focus on culture because doing so will help minimise the worst effects of the crises we’re now in. Here’s just a few reasons why:

  1. The so-called ‘resignation wave’ is real, and continues. Teaching assistants are leaving the profession because they can get better pay working in the local supermarkets. The high-stakes accountability environment is driving millenials into other, less-pressured professions. The resignation wave is being driven by millenials (aged 26–41). The average age of teachers in the UK is 39. You can do the math yourself. Can we buy the loyalty of millenials? In a word, no. According to recent research, they want to work for organisations with purpose, that give them autonomy, and opportunities to learn and personally develop. In short, where there’s a culture that aligns with their values and aspirations.
  2. Organisations that look after the health and mental wellbeing of their people are more productive, have more engaged staff, enjoy greater retention and are just happier places to be in.
  3. Placing a strong emphasis upon culture (not just high performance) promotes the kind of servant leadership strategies that successful organisations have adopted. In the terminology of the now legendary study of London Headteachers, it leans us towards architects, not surgeons. Surgeon leaders have no time for fluffy stuff like culture, mistakenly believing that it doesn’t improve test scores. Architects help nurture culture, over time, because they know that happy educators create happy students, and happy students get better grades (though that’s not the architect’s prime focus)

In all of the innovative, high performing organisations that I visited, it soon dawned upon me that they knew that if they got the culture right, everything else would follow. New Roads School, Patagonia, coops like Repowering London, XP schools — all outstandingly successful, innovative organisations whose people are joined in common purpose to create something bigger than themselves.

Leaders whose schools and colleges have dysfunctional cultures usually make one of two mistakes: they think it’s their job to impose the culture they want to see upon the organisation — that never ends well; or they think that culture’s something intangible, invisible, and therefore can’t be measured. What The Power Of Us set out to define was this: what are the really important cultural elements shared by successful organisations? I reduced it to 8: Trust; Transparency; Engagment; Equity; Autonomy; Agency; Mastery; Meaning. I looked around to see who was measuring each of these and couldn’t find anyone. So, together with the rest of The Power Of Us Agency we set out to design tools that would do just that.

Mark Moorhouse, CEO of The Watergrove Trust speaks, in this clip, about the danger of invisibility, and the insights to be gained from digging into the detail (he’s now on the second running of our cultural audit tool):

Mark and I share a leadership hero: W.E.Deming. One of Deming’s memorable quotes was “ Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” Mark is about to get a hefty 500+ page analysis of data from his Power Of Us Cultural Audit. It will include all trust staff responses to challenges like ‘How well does the school tolerate failure?’, ‘How are you involved in the planning process?’, ‘How likely are you to leave within the next 12 months?’) Some of it will surely be confronting, just as some of the results will be affirming. With all of it, Mark will use the data, not as a stick to beat people with, but as a way of bringing everyone together to create a healthier, more effective working environment.

That’s what leaders, who understand the importance of culture, do.

The online tools we’re developing are the things I’m most proud of in a 35-year career, because they always provide fresh insights, even to the most seasoned leaders. Insights needed to make informed changes. Based upon data, not opinion. I’m so sure that it can help leaders, that we’re making parts of the cultural audit available, for free. All you have to do is to let me know in the comments below, which of those 8 elements listed above matter most to you, in the creation of a healthy, effective culture.

Ultimately, however, I don’t care much which tool you use to measure your culture, so long as you don’t pay lip-service to it. I don’t want to walk into any more schools that display the ‘values’ poster in the reception area but live according to a whole other set of behaviours and attitudes.

So tell me, what are you doing to nurture — not mandate — culture in your organisation?