There Is No Such Thing As Culture

In 1987, interviewed for Woman's Own magazine, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced, '...and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing!' She was despairing of those she judged to exploit government benevolence. Later, she refined her belief into the immensely quotable, much criticised and often weaponised, 'There is no such thing as society.'

This anecdote resonates with one feature of school improvement and reveals a single word that can prevent authentic transformation. That word is 'culture'.

Aspects of my work involve helping to 'change the culture of a school'; to 'embed a culture of this or that'; to 'transform one culture into an other one'. This task is often necessary, mostly rewarding and always difficult. It's also hobbled by the assumption that 'culture' is a discrete substance that can be shaped at will; something separate from those requesting the change. For example, 'Our culture is toxic. We must change it. Let's get a plan, set our expectations, our observable success criteria, and then sit back and wait.'

Thatcher thought the concept of 'society' provided an alternative to personal responsibility; 'they are casting their problems on society.' Does the concept of 'culture' somehow excuse those requesting a 'cultural transformation' from any need to make changes in themselves? I believe if often does, but not intentionally.

Thatcher went on to say, 'There is a living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.' Oddly this part of the interview didn't take on a life of its own down the decades.

The culture of a school is the people in the school. It's who they are, what they value, how they think and the things they do - individually and collectively. If the culture is to transform, authentically and sustainably, then the people must transform. And that kind of change is more than doing something different. It's about being something different.

A Difficult Reframe

To help folks accept their part in this, I offer you a very simple idea: a reframe. Whenever you talk about school culture, imagine there is no such thing and replace the word with 'people'. 'The culture needs to change' becomes 'the people need to change'. 'We must embed a culture of rigour' becomes 'We must embed people of rigour.' Uncomfortable, right? Difficult? If only to make the sentences work. But this switch does connect positive aspirations directly to those people who are involved with them, instead of buffering the request with an illusive concept.

May I therefore borrow Thatcher's format to offer a micro-manifesto for teachers and leaders who even now, in complex and complicated times, continue to move forward with hope:

Imagine there is no such thing as culture. But instead know that there is a rich tapestry of educators and the beauty of this is that these people are prepared to take responsibility for themselves, for their growth, and therefore by their own efforts offer love and laughter to their colleagues and, in turn, learning and better lives to their children.