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Changing our school’s culture

by Staff

Challenge or opportunity for school leaders?

Gordon Montgomery, Head of Partnerships and Outreach at Oundle looks at how the school has developed its culture in order to embrace an enriching range of different partnerships.

How cultural norms have changed

Frightening really! In the coming month my son will take his first foreign steps alone, staying with a French family on a school exchange programme. Apart from the usual staying-away-from-the-nest fretting, as parents we wonder how will he cope? We have taken steps to prepare him of course, discovering a set of instructional videos provided by the BBC in the 1980s to introduce French culture and language. Set in wartime occupied France, they follow the fortunes of a local café owner, his pilloried wife and a Resistance Movement preoccupied with paintings usually stowed within a selection of cured meats.

Apart from whatever minor cultural understanding he might have learned from the series (In fact the BBC Sit Com, ‘Allo Allo’ if you’re from a younger generation), it certainly served as a  reminder to us children of the 20th Century of how cultural norms have changed – I suspect it might be written differently were it being produced today, what was once seen as harmless humour might not pass muster now.

Whatever the standard, developing a  common culture is vitally important for groups of people working togeher, allowing them to work with aligned understanding and practice that occurs on societal, organisational and professional levels. Crucially, however, it is subject to change.

Cultural Differences

Cultural differences will be a familiar theme to those of us who have worked in international schools. Having moved abroad from a leading independent school, my first days in a UK-branded international school in SE Asia included a naïve expectation of a common organisational culture – and it simply wasn’t there. The school was marvellous in it’s own right, academic, ambitious and with a warmth to its community, but culturally it was very different and adapting both pastorally and pedagogically provided a challenge to newly arrived teachers, regardless of their prior experience.

Good teachers adapt on both the micro-level within lessons, often many times within a lesson, and also on a macro-scale as they learn to work within the professional norms of the school and national culture. It’s not always easy but good teachers can adapt. For school leaders and teachers, learning where we must conform to the local norms and where we can influence the prevailing organisational culture is a key challenge.

Through my current role I spend time in, and work alongside, many other schools and organisations which affords an instructive view of organisational cultures. A comprehensive school in Kettering with whom we work closely is a fine example. A united team sharing a consistent message with clearly defined actions and standards establishes the school style. They illustrate the power of school culture but also how it can be changed, developed and moulded in a local context; this is fundamental to the understanding of school leadership and organisational change where explicitly stated ethos, the influence of local ‘champions’ and distributed leadership can deliver strong, managed organisational culture.


At Oundle we have developed our organisational culture to incorporate partnerships with leading universities, maintained sector schools and other organisations with an interest in supporting education for all. We employ 3 members of staff with dedicated time to bring quality STEM experiences not only to our own pupils, but also to those in partner schools. We support capable children from all backgrounds to be ambitious and to fulfil their potential through the Oundle, Peterborough and East Northants (OPEN) Learning Partnership

This sort of cultural adaptation is also becoming increasingly apparent in many UK independent schools with respect to their approach to cross-sector partnerships; increasingly an accepted part of best practice in many schools. Many opportunities are now being offered to pupils through cross-sector links between local groups, led by 2 important cultural shifts in the sector.

Firstly, an enhanced recognition of the potential for social impact and a willingness to allow local ‘champions’ to drive opportunity. Local area partnerships with schools in Newcastle and Abingdon are good examples of where the addition of modest resources for  STEM has enhanced and developed the teaching offered to children in those cities.

My own school sends over 300 pupils out on weekly Community Action, many of them into nearby schools. The Oundle programme was developed over many years by a dedicated colleague and local champions who have also been key in exerting a culture-changing influence.

Secondly, is the recognition of what independent schools, and their pupils, have to gain from such partnerships. Whilst service learning is important for our young people to discover what they have to give, more important perhaps is their ability to engage with peers of their own age from different backgrounds, something which cannot be achieved in isolation. Collaborations where teachers from partner schools jointly deliver academic enrichment opportunities allowing pupils from both sectors to work together. Increasingly, independent school parents also want to see their children have these opportunities and recognise the benefits to their learning.

Education is a social enterprise, schools do not stand alone but as part of a local community. We have a role to play in that community and a responsibility to help bring along the next generation.

Cross-cultural learning takes place in many guises, some close to home and others on the foreign shores. It is a fascinating subject simply because of its breadth and the interplay between national, local and organisational factors.

As my son heads off, I hope he will benefit from the exposure to a different way of living and enjoy his first challenge of adapting to a new culture. Maybe someday he will have to apply that skill professionally and this experience will serve him well.

Gordon Montgomery is Deputy Head Partnerships and Outreach at Oundle School, one of the UK’s leading independent boarding schools.

Gordon has developed partnerships with maintained sector schools and tertiary institutions including Imperial College London and the Royal College of Music.


For more about Oundle’s partnership programme, see PARTNERSHIPS AND OUTREACH


FEATURE IMAGE:  Oundle Students on a classics trip to Greece

All images:            with kind permission from Oundle School

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