Is the current academic culture at River College fit for purpose?
Research statement 8
Review of the literature 9-11
‘For schools to be effective, educators need to understand the organizational cultures in which they work and be able to modify them if necessary’
(Gruent & Whitaker, 2015, p. 3).
“The desire to improve schools is a significant concern for school leaders across the world. Most school improvement strategies look to drive academic performance by focussing on key areas such as curriculum improvement, teaching and learning enhancement and school leadership development. A recent study by the Education Development Trust highlights this school improvement emphasis. The study produced a model for school improvement and highlighted eight factors that would improve the organizational effectiveness of schools; ‘leadership, vision, teaching quality, governance, monitoring and evaluation, curriculum, staff performance management, and improvements to relationships between schools and the parents and community’ (Education Development Trust, 2016, p. 3).
This valuable study and much contemporary research into school effectiveness ignores one critical component of school improvement; culture. The importance of culture has long been highlighted by those in the field of organizational culture and evidence from the business world clearly shows the link between culture and performance (Gerstner, 2002). The concept of culture has been defined as;
‘a pattern of basic assumptions invented, discovered or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with problems … that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relations to those problems’ (Schein, 1985, p. 9).
The culture-performance link has proven veracity but in educational settings, culture is often seen as an ‘ephemeral, taken-for-granted aspect of schools and consequently is usually absent from discussions about school improvement’ (Deal & Peterson, 2016, p. 7). The absence of culture from the contemporary school improvement narrative is unjustified and recent research highlights the importance of school culture as a key component to school effectiveness.
School improvement is contingent upon a critical appreciation of culture in concert with other models of school effectiveness; ‘no school improvement effort will be effective, maintained, or enhanced unless school culture and academic focus are both addressed and aligned’ (Fisher, Frey & Pumpian, 2012, p. 5).
Culture is therefore crucial to school improvement. One potential method of school improvement is the promotion of a more academic culture. Described by (Brick, 2016, p. 7) as ‘attitudes, values and ways of behaving that are shared by people who work or study’, it is an aspirational culture that draws its inspiration from the world of academia and its effective practices. There is often however, a disconnect between educators who promote this culture and students who develop their own counter-culture. An academic culture promotes ways of learning and methods of working that ensure that students can cope with the rigours of academic work. The issue of a lack of ‘academic rigour’ (a key component of academic cultures) in schools has been highlighted by researchers (Thomas & Brown, 2011, Hoy, 2006 & Van Houtte, 2004), bemoaned by politicians, and has been a matter of concern for many Principals throughout the United Kingdom.
The lack of academic rigour in schools and indeed the education system has also been the major concern of educational policy makers, most notably the former Education Secretary; Michael Gove. His response, The Coalition Government’s 2010 White Paper: The Importance of Teaching was a seminal piece of Parliamentary literature that in the past seven years has redrawn the educational landscape in Britain. The paper heralded an era of educational reform that has revolutionised school structures, processes and ideologies. With its neoconservative emphases the reforms initiated by the paper were designed to ‘tie together values, rigour, discipline and freedom and link these to excellence, opportunity, competition and prosperity’ (Ball, 2017, p. 4) in an attempt to transform and improve the entire education system.
The Education Secretary’s passion for reform was in part driven by his concern that the current examination system was flawed and change was needed to ‘address the dumbing down and loss of rigour’ (Gove, 2013 as cited in Long, 2017 p. 6) in the system. The subsequent educational reforms were designed therefore to tackle these concerns and to make it ‘possible to have an education system in which many more young people achieve highly than in the past or in the present’ (Department for Education, 2010, p. 2) coupled with more curriculum specific reforms developed to ensure that qualifications become ‘more engaging and worthwhile to teach and study, as well as more resilient and respected’ (Ofqual, 2013 p. 3).
Gove’s focus on the restoration of respect in the examination system led to proposals to establish new more rigorous examinations and in February 2013 the Conservative Government committed to working with Ofqual to reform both GCSEs and A Levels from September 2015. Academic rigour is at the heart of these examination reforms designed to fix a broken system (Gove, 2013 as cited in Long, 2017); ‘content has been revised, the grading system for GCSEs has changed, school accountability measures have been redesigned, and in many qualifications, coursework and controlled assessment have been reduced or even abolished’ (Christodoulou, 2015 cited in Peal, 2015, p. 45).
The difficulty in establishing an ‘academic culture’ in this reforming environment is further exacerbated by schools that offer an ‘inclusive’ approach to students. An ‘inclusive package’ refers to the desire of a school to promote all aspects of the educational experience including vocational, extra-curricular and sport sometimes leading to the dilution of academic rigour (something at odds with the current educational narrative). This is certainly the case with River College (pseudonym); an institution which prides itself on it’s ‘inclusivity’ and has performed well historically but lacks a distinct ‘academic culture’ that would enable continued progression in the current reformed era.
River College is a popular independent day and boarding school in Oxfordshire which boasts an ‘Excellent’ rating from a recent ISI inspection. The college also enjoys a very good sporting reputation and is famous for its rowing. The college has around 400 boys and 50 girls in the Sixth Form and is expanding year-on-year. The college’s exam results have grown in the last five years with GCSE A*-C sitting at 93% and an A Level/Btec pass rate of 100% in 2016. The college prides itself on its inclusive nature and ability to offer a tailored educational experience. The college has a tradition of accepting students with bespoke learning needs and has a higher than average (for an independent school) number of SEND students who traditionally favoured less academic subjects. Historically students have thrived due to access to less academic pathways with an emphasis on coursework-heavy subjects, Btec provision and a thriving resit culture. River College has become progressively successful in terms of academic statistics because of whole school processes designed to provide maximum support to pupils with low academic abilities. These processes for lower ability pupils include compulsory Learning Development Department provision (additional lessons), smaller class sizes, restricted subject options and the ability to attend resit clinics. Traditionally pupils at River College enjoyed an educational experience where inclusivity had primacy over academia.
This philosophy of inclusivity and the challenges facing the college are outlined here by the Headmaster:
Academic rigour remains vitally important in education, but as a reflection of the growing tendency of universities and employers to demand a wide range of skills and experiences, schools now have a greater responsibility than ever to focus on the overall development of their pupils. This philosophy is certainly embraced here at River College. We pride ourselves on our ability to ‘add value’ to each pupil’s education.
This quote encapsulates the fundamental challenge facing River College; namely how to improve ‘academic rigour’ while still offering an ‘inclusive’ experience against the backdrop of education reform. The educational reforms have impacted the workings of the college directly with their significant changes to examinations ‘designed to inject greater rigour into the system’ (Chitty, 2014, p. 97); notably the move towards linear A Levels and the reduced role (and primacy) of coursework across all subjects. The impact of these changes will affect River College especially due to the makeup of the student cohort and the context of the school.
These reforms clearly provide an additional challenging environment for schools and have reset the parameters of teaching and assessment. It is clear that a more academically rigorous culture must be developed at River College to ensure that students respond effectively to the dynamics of curriculum reform. As the head of an academically rigorous department (History) in addition to leading the college’s Teaching and Learning group (a school wide task force) this challenge and research focus is directly relevant to myself and the college as a whole. Leading the Teaching and Learning group offers the opportunity to review the reformed educational landscape from a theoretical perspective and its impact on a school wide scale.
It will also allow and enable progressive collaboration with colleagues across the curriculum spectrum. The Head of Department role additionally offers an integrated point of reference from a practical perspective which will incorporate staff and student involvement. Understanding the impact of the curriculum reforms from the perspectives of all stakeholders is necessary and my position in the school will enable this. Taking into account the potential scale and breadth of ‘reculturing’ and appreciating the practical limitations, the professional challenge will target a focused cohort derived from students studying GCSE and A Level History in addition to a selection of core staff as a precursor for potential whole school change.” (Green, 2018).
This professional challenge is designed in order to gain a better understanding of the cultural makeup of River College and investigate to what extent the current culture is ‘fit for purpose’ in the reformed educational environment. The study will also offer original research into the cultural dynamics of a modern British independent school. The study it is hoped will lead to a greater appreciation of the schools organisational effectiveness and its potential for transformation. (Green, 2018).
In order to address the professional challenge and investigate the cultural makeup of River College three research questions have been formulated. These questions have been developed throughout previous assignments and in concert with the literature review.
- What perceptions are held by staff and students about the academic culture at River College?
- In what ways do the teachers and senior leaders at River College think that the current academic culture manifests?
- What aspects of the current academic culture do the teachers and senior leaders at River College think need to change?
Review of the literature
Can more academic rigour be integrated into an inclusive independent school’s culture? This challenge can only be addressed by firstly conducting a thorough review of existing academic works to establish not only its theoretical authenticity but also to justify its research validity. Academic journals, books and online articles have been reviewed from a broad field of academic disciplines in an attempt to achieve this. (Green, 2018).
In order to ensure the validity of this literature review it was important that a wide range of literature was accessed and that clear search parameters were defined. The review focused therefore on ‘culture’ in the fields of education, psychology, organisational theory and leadership. The review was not restricted geographically and featured academics from Europe and the USA, it was however restricted to English language sources for practical reasons. The review featured sources initially from the last ten years but was extended chronologically if sources were not forthcoming. A combination of digital and printed sources were accessed both online and in libraries. Utilising the University of Leicester online library in addition to JSTOR and Google Scholar, twenty journal articles, ten books and five webpages were selected for review.
To lay the foundation for further study and to establish the procedural frameworks for a literature review on school culture, it was first vital that an initial review on the constructs of school culture itself was carried out. Conceptions of school culture are diverse and it was applicable therefore to gain both a theoretical overview in addition to establishing a consensus of the classifications of culture. Following this process the review then concentrated on previous research which investigated cultural change in educational settings. A review of previous case studies was particularly apposite in order to analyse the theoretical approaches used, the conclusions drawn and the research methodologies employed by the researchers. Additionally, in order to develop the validity and applicability of the study there was a distinct focus on literature that encompassed several relevant themes including; the psychological dimensions of schools, the influence of gender on achievement, and the impact of leadership on school culture.
“Academics and commentators are clear globally that positive cultural transformation of schools is critical to academic improvement. Gruenent and Whitaker (2015, p. 4) in their recent work; School Culture Rewired: how to define, assess and transform it argue that ‘culture is both a survival mechanism and a framework for solving problems’, Elbot and Fulton (2008, p. 2) stress the significance of school culture and the importance of transformation ‘to consistently build excellence for students, families and for the community’. The literature review supports these ideas but also disseminated definitions of culture, suggested methodologies to assess culture and provided frameworks to transform culture.
The review demonstrated that there were competing ideas of the conceptualisation of the culture construct and its terminology (Schoen & Teddlie, 2008, Solvason, 2005, Stoll, 1998). This potential lack of clarity is an area that demands more time and attention; a clear conceptualisation of ‘culture’ must be established before any assessment of existing school culture is attempted.
A clear theme emerged throughout the review and that was the apparent psychological disconnect between staff and student perceptions of culture (Graham, 2012, Barr, 2011, YouthTruth, 2017). No studies attempted to triangulate student and staff data or views and most offered a one-dimensional view of school culture; this seemingly methodological omission surely generates further consideration.
Additionally, the review underscored the issue of gender differences in school culture (Van Houtte, 2004. Raby & Pomerantz 2016) but while studies highlighted these differences few offered theoretical explanations for them or indeed provided convincing evidence to support theories. The role of gender in cultural appreciation is therefore an area that demands greater research.
The review furthermore promoted the role of school leaders as critical change agents (Peterson & Deal, 2011, Engles, 2008 and van der Westhuizen, 2005), but failed to initiate detailed discussion on the role of teachers, parents or governors. These stakeholders in schools all contribute to the dynamics of cultural development and thus offer scope for research potential.
The review furthermore revealed a complete lack of research into the culture of British independent schools as most studies focused on public educational establishments. This oversight can be remedied by studying River College as a case study.” (Green, 2018)
It is clear that attempting cultural transformation within an educational setting is a challenging and ambitious proposition; it is however a feasible and pertinent one. Understanding the existing culture(s) of a school is a necessary precursor to whole school re-culturing and undertaking this research will enable dynamic research in an original setting. The research will underscore the importance of leadership in school transition in addition to reinforcing the interdependence between school culture and school improvement.
The study will undertake an examination of the academic culture at River College in an attempt to assess the applicability of the culture to the current more rigorous academic landscape. The study it is hoped will lead to a greater appreciation of the schools organisational effectiveness and its potential for transformation. (Green, 2018).
The procedure to which a researcher aligns themselves to when conducting and analysing research requires them to make wide-ranging assumptions about both the nature and subject of the research itself.
Traditionally researchers would either favour positivist or interpretivist approaches depending on their epistemological position and the ontological intentions of their research. Positivists lauded an approach and methodology rooted in a system of verifiable scientific validity while interpretivists favoured an approach and methodology that favoured relativity and context above all else. Proponents of both paradigms assumed a word view that was seemingly immutable and this had obvious implications for research. Fortunately a methodological pluralism has more recently been advocated and the somewhat binary approach to research has been largely bypassed.
This methodological pluralism has moved beyond ‘the either-or thinking which characterised the quantitative/qualitative debate, and towards making full use of the two approaches’ (Punch, 2016, p. 5). This mixed-methods approach is now firmly part of the research environment and ‘provides a more complete understanding of a research problem’ (Cresswell, 2014, p. 4). Pragmatically adopting elements from both approaches enables researcher’s to develop the scope and depth of their research in addition to providing clear triangulation opportunities.
Due to the nature and dynamics of an educational setting it would seem most appropriate to adopt a mixed methods approach to this study.
A mixed methods approach has multiple advantages as ‘its central premise is that the use of quantitative and qualitative approaches in combination provides a better understanding of research problems than either approach alone’ (Cresswell, 2014, p. 5) and this approach suits the purpose of the study. The adoption of a mixed methods approach offers the practical benefits of collecting and analysing both quantitative and qualitative data in addition to offsetting the ‘weaknesses’ of both methodologies. It enables comprehensive data to be collected without restrictions to provide a more valid and representative dataset. Enhancing the strength and validity of results is the essence of triangulation and a mixed methods approach which ultimately seeks ‘the convergence of evidence and corroboration of results from different methods and designs studying the same phenomenon’ (Coe et al., 2017, p. 159) will achieve this goal.
Embracing a mixed methods philosophy the study proposes to investigate the cultural makeup of River College by utilising two different methods of data collection; interviews and questionnaires.
Interviews are a tried-and-tested mainstay of interpretivist-leaning researchers who seek to elicit key understanding of issues from respondents in addition to enabling contextual elucidation. Interviews are relatively simple to replicate and often produce rich data that is ripe for analysis. To ensure reliability, allow for replicability and to enhance validity the interviews will be face-to-face and fully structured.
A rich sample of students, staff and senior leaders will be interviewed on aspects of academic culture at River College. The sample will include ten students (25% of the GCSE/A Level cohort), ten staff (25% of the school teaching staff) and two senior leaders (25% of the Senior Leadership Team). The sample size has been selected on the basis of practical constraints in addition to ensuring relative representativeness.
It is hoped that such a broad sample of stakeholders across the school will provide detailed insight into the cultural makeup of the school.
In terms of critically analysing the data, it is important to ensure the quality of the data from the outset and be cognisant of the difficulties associated with this particular method of data collection. It would seem most appropriate to adopt an inductive analytic approach when looking at the data set produced by the interviews. This approach often used when analysing qualitative date would ‘generate meanings from the data set collected in order to identify patterns and relationships to build a theory’ (Saunders et al., 2012, p. 505) in this regard a theory of school culture. Inductive analysis also condenses extensive data into summary form and offers transparent and defensible links from the research objectives and the data (Thomas, 2003).
It is of course essential that the interviews are conducted with great care and consideration to avoid both ethical conundrums and methodological mishaps. Interview responses are by definition biased and the subjective nature of the method must be prudently controlled. When interviewing staff about school culture the researcher must be cognisant of the fact that they are immersed in that culture, and therefore their responses while valid, must be treated with analytical caution. In terms of replicability it is also worth noting that River College is a unique and distinct environment (as all schools are) and therefore it could be problematic to repeat the exact setup of the interview elsewhere.
A staple of the positivist researcher’s armoury the questionnaire is a powerful research weapon. Questionnaires can be created with ease using software such as Google Forms and be delivered online for efficient returns. Effective questionnaires can return large amounts of standardised information which can reveal trends and patterns suitable for scrutiny. Furthermore this method would be complimentary to the interviews previously conducted in terms of triangulation. Questionnaires yield high amounts of data standardization with the added advantage of potential anonymity.
A rich sample of members of staff and senior leaders from across the school will be asked to complete a Google Form questionnaire on the manifestations of culture at River College. The sample will aim to build on the interview data and the questionnaire will be sent out to one hundred staff and five senior leaders.
The key benefit of this method for this study will be time and response rate; the online questionnaire will allow staff to ‘choose to answer whenever it is most convenient for them’ (Gilbert 2001, p. 52) and this should ensure a broad sample response. The data collected should be informative and comprehensive and will enable comparability with previous data.
Data analysis is the process by which research data is converted into research findings, and provides ‘a way of drawing inductive inferences from data and distinguishing the signal (the phenomenon of interest) from the noise (statistical fluctuations) (Shamoo & Resnik, 2003). It is vital therefore that the data analysis technique matches the research methodology. Mixed methods research inevitably requires careful analysis of both the qualitative and quantitative elements of the research design.
Due to the nature of the study it would seem appropriate to conduct deductive rather than inductive analysis on the data set produced. Deductive analysis is a commonly utilised method for analysing quantitative data and offers the advantages of explaining the relationships between concepts and variables, measuring concepts quantitatively and the possibility of generalising research findings (Dudovskiy, 2018). Conducting deductive analysis would therefore test the hypothesis that the culture at River College is not ‘fit for purpose’.
When conducting research it is imperative that ethical considerations are at the forefront of a researcher’s mind. Ethical considerations should be given attention at all stages of the research process to ensure that research is conducted properly, honestly and with integrity. This is true in all research situations but in an educational setting this is even more pertinent.
Most research is carried out within an ethical framework designed to safeguard both the process and the participants. These frameworks have been codified by professional bodies such as the British Educational Research Association (BERA) and the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK (ESRC) and form the basis of ethical codes of practice and protocols utilised by researchers. These protocols follow an agreed consensus which provides ‘a basis for discipline among social researchers and prescribe acceptable practice on the assumption of a professional consensus’ (Homan, 1991).
This study will proceed with extreme ethical caution and transparency by adopting the codes of practice advocated by the aforementioned professional bodies. The first stage will of course be in gaining ethical approval from the University and the school. Additionally methodological tools such as Seedhouse’s ethical grid and Flinder’s ethical frameworks (Stuchbury & Fox, 2009) will be utilised where appropriate.
The above methodological tools reveal myriad ethical issues to take into account but with this study the main concerns will be working with vulnerable groups (students), gaining informed consent, and ensuring confidentiality and anonymity.
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