School organisational culture

What is this about ?

The concept of  organisational culture become very popular as the way of overcoming the limitations of more traditional structural and rational approaches that fail to adequately explain the complexity of human behaviour in organisations. Stressing the importance of values, beliefs, attitudes and the ways of thinking of people working in organisations as important elements shaping their everyday work gives management theory a more human dimension. It is especially welcomed by those looking for educational management as a concept adequate to describe and understand complexity of schools as educational organisations (Bottery, 1992). Using the concept of organisational culture involves looking at every school as a unique entity that cannot be run according to general management theory rules that can be mechanically applied to any organisation. 

Questions for reflectionon school organsiational culture:

  1. What are central values for our school as an  organisation?
  2. What do different groups (leaders, teachers, non-pedagogical staff, students, parents, etc.) thing about our basic values ?
  3. How do we as school ensure that different understandings of basic values are confronted and discussed?
  4. Do we encourage professional development activities that support understanding and development of school organisational culture?
  5. How/Do we ensure that  students understand what are the school's basic values and how do we engage them in the development of school culture (what is their role in it) ?
  6. How is our understanding of basic educational values  reflected in the material resources of our school?

Why is this important?

There are numerous attempts to define what organisational culture is. One of simplest and probably the most commonly known definition is “the way we do things around here” (Lundy & Cowling, 1996). The concept of organizational culture explains that “the way we do things…” comes from specific sets of values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that are shared by organisational members, which gives the organisation unique and distinctive character (Brown, 1998).

Organisational culture can be understood as  “ collective software of minds” that has developed out of three sources: universal, group or collective and individual.

The universal source consists of  elements that are common for every culture and organization as they are human constructs and reflect the nature and specificity of us as human beings.

Group or collective elements come from programming that takes place because we are members of different groups or circles: civilization circle with elements of programming our minds that are for example different in western and far-east civilisation; the national circle makes us different because we grew up being educated (programmed) in different national educational systems; the regional circle , regardless that we are members of the same nation, makes us slightly different because we developed in different regions of the country; the  professional group that gives us specific knowledge, language and understanding of different things that makes us different from members of other professions; the gender group that gives us slightly different programming through our social understanding of gender roles that makes us different.

Individual factors, contributing to the collective software of minds in organisations and building specific organisational culture, come from individual personalities of members of organisation that are always unique and result in the unique character of certain organisations making them different even if they develop in the same cultural context (Hofstede, 1991).

Organisational culture manifests itself at different levels or through different dimensions. Edgar Schein (1992) for example argues that it can be seen as a phenomenon that expresses itself on three levels:

The level of basic assumptions – deeply rooted in our minds these mental models  give us an explanation about the nature of the world, nature of human being, etc. These are usually unconscious but strongly influence the reality of our organisations.

Second is the level of basic values that are important for certain organisations. It is important that school (organisational) leadership ensures that they are conscious as they directly influence everyday practice within the organisation. The members of organisation have to clarify them and transfer them into their practice according to their understanding.

The third level, called the level of artefacts, can be seen on the material level in the ways building, space, material resources and equipment look and are used. It usually reflects what is important in organisations from the perspective of levels of basic assumptions and values and it is good if it is consistent with those levels (Schein, 1992).

Organisations and their cultures are different. To describe that difference and  understand some distinctive elements of organisational culture more  precisely some authors have developed typologies of organisational cultures. There are numerous attempts of typologies but the best known and most frequently  used to describe schools as organisations is Handy’s typology of four cultures: power culture (Zeus), role culture (Apollo), task culture (Athena) and person culture (Dionysus).

The first type, power culture, is strongly influenced by the centrally located, strong personality of a leader. He/she dominates every single aspect of organisational culture. It is then built of the potential of one person only. From the perspective of educational organisation it is not a very good culture as it limits potential of school and educational  processes going on within it on different levels to the potential of person that plays formal role of school head.

Role culture, which is also called bureaucratic culture, is built on laws and regulations that describe every single aspect of school life leaving no place for individual decisions. Such culture is very static or mechanistic and does not allow for flexibility or freedom of action. That is why it is not adequate for the needs of schools as organisations as they everyday deal with new and unique problems of developing learners.  

Task culture is built on the potential of all members of organisation seen from the perspective of specific organisational tasks. It must be argued that it is the best culture for school as organisation. It values individual potential but puts it into the context of organisational goals. It can create conditions that maximise the potential of organisations and best support the development and learning of students.

Person culture (anarchic)  which also values individuals neglects organizational interests and brings the danger of narrowly understood individualistic needs as central for organization. As learning and development processes have social nature it does not serve good needs of schools as organizations focused on learning and development processes (Handy, Aitken, 1986).  

Typologies such as Handy’s attempt on one hand  give clear picture of some features of organizational culture, but on the other they lose complexity of it and simplify the picture of live organization. Schools (any other organizations) have to be cultures that are able to incorporate different ways of understanding and action that are typical for different cultures in order to serve different needs of complex and unpredictable educational processes. Building such school cultures seems to be central challenge of contemporary educational systems (Dorczak, 2014).

What does this mean for leadership?

The ability to of develop school culture is recognised as one of  central competencies for educational leadership. Sergiovanni argues that there are five groups of key educational leadership competencies: technical, human, educational, symbolic and cultural (Sergiovanni, 1984). When we look at those competencies it is obvious that at least three of those groups of competencies are connected with organisational culture. When describing the educational and symbolic Sergiovanni focuses on understanding of educational processes and educational values and when talking about cultural competencies he describes them as the ability to build common understanding of educational values in schools. It is then clear that competencies in those there areas are focused on school culture. This creates specific challenges for school leaders. She/he has to ensure that a common understanding of basic values is established in school and is reflected in school material resources and in everyday activities undertaken by all professionals involved in learning and developmental processes. As we look at the broad definition of leadership which is built on values, vision and influence(Bush, Bell, Middlewood, 2010), it is obvious that concept of school organisational culture is central for understanding specificity of educational leadership.

Educational leaders have to develop  school culture that is supportive of educational processes that have individual human development and learning as central values.  This helps to create schools that are educational organisations  and different from any other organisations  in the public sector ( Fielding, 2006; McBeath, Dempster, 2009).

Building school culture is complex and  linked with every other aspect of educational leadership as an ongoing process of school culture transformation  which can only be done successfully with the participation of the whole team (Muhammad, 2009). It is also a very complex, difficult and risky process which is not always successful (Deal, Peterson, 2009). 



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