The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Tomsett

From vision to action: choosing your school's values

Having defined a core purpose and vision for your school, the next step is to establish a set of shared values. John Tomsett explains how this can be done.

'Authentic values are those by which a life can be lived, which can form a people that produces great deeds and thoughts.'

Allan Bloom

In many ways I think a school’s values system is the most important element of building a truly great school.

What we value influences how we conduct ourselves in every interaction we have with others. Our values dictate our behaviours as we go about the difficult work of realising our school vision.

Ultimately the success of schools hinges upon the nature of the relationships between its students and teachers. I know I am a Fullan bore, but he is absolutely spot on when he says, 'The single factor common to successful change is that relationships improve. If relationships improve, schools get better. If relationships remain the same or get worse, ground is lost.'

Living by our shared values is key to cultivating healthy relationships. Faith schools already know their shared values – I would argue that non-faith schools have to work at this element of their culture a little harder.

How, not what

When we began developing the values system at Huntington School, I made a couple of errors which, together, made our values system meaningless and ineffectual. The how is more important than the what, and the first mistake I made was identifying the school leadership team’s values, which then became the school’s values.

It would be difficult to be more wrong when establishing a set of shared values. I still squirm when I think of how we declared that we would value:

  • every single person in our school community
  • mutual respect
  • honesty
  • taking individual responsibility
  • team work
  • self-discipline
  • learning for its own sake
  • commitment
  • our environment
  • achievement of all kinds
  • the limitless potential of people.

They were shared between ten of us, but there are 1,600 students and staff in our school.

From the bottom up

The second mistake is obvious: there were far too many values – and some of them aren’t values anyway! But we laboured for a year or more with a set of values that weren’t shared, nor were they necessarily values.

I realised my mistake when I asked the school leadership team to name our values and no one could name more than four. Other colleagues found the task of naming our values similarly difficult: the same for students and governors.

When we reviewed our shared values we began from the bottom up. We asked every single student, year group by year group, to identify a set of values which were important to them and we asked the same of every single member of staff. From the responses it was easy to agree a final three values:

  • Respect
  • Honesty
  • Kindness

The further piece of work which cemented our shared values was undertaken by a working group of students and staff which defined the behaviours we would see across the school if we all live by our values all of the time. Respect, honesty, kindness and the working group’s definitions are proclaimed on the wall of every corridor and classroom in the school.

Constructing the school’s core purpose, vision and values coherently is vital work for the headteacher who wants to develop a culture where teaching and learning are seen as the core business of the school. Invest heavily in building your school’s foundations; well-established, those foundations will sustain your learning community during the best and worst of times.

Top tips

This much I know about building the school's foundations: core purpose, vision and values.

  • Engage your students and colleagues in identifying your shared values.
  • Limit the number of shared values.
  • Define explicitly the institutional behaviours your shared values should engender.
  • Proclaim your shared values loudly.
  • Begin shaping your vision in pictures, not words.
  • Articulate an ambitious vision.
  • Give yourself a timeframe for achieving your vision.
  • Once established, make your vision visible to everyone.
  • Check every so often that you are on course to realise your vision.
  • Involve all your staff in developing your core purpose.
  • Ask your students to help get the wording of your core purpose right.
  • Keep your core purpose brief.
  • Make sure everyone knows your core purpose.
  • Live by your core purpose and your shared values every single day.

Follow the links below for more from John:

1. From vision to action: developing your school's core purpose

2. From vision to action: establishing a vision for your school

3. From vision to action: planning with coherence

Further reading

Fullan, M. (2002), Paper prepared for Educational Leadership, May 2002. Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. p. 7.

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