Walking the walk with school culture

In our profile this term, we visit Shenton College in Perth, and learn how the school is truly living its mottos and values.

Established in 2001, Shenton College is one of Western Australia’s largest and most-awarded high schools, a public co-educational facility of just over 2000 students in the western suburbs of Perth. The school is partially selective – offering a gifted and talented program – and also incorporates the Deaf Education Centre, the state’s only secondary deaf school.

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Anyone who has attended an orientation or graduation at Shenton College in the past fifteen years will have heard Principal Michael Morgan fiercely repeat the same statements: that Shenton College is proudly public, proudly co-educational and proudly inclusive. While he could have sent his own children to any of the excellent private schools that are nestled amongst the towering gums of the western suburbs, he insisted that they attend his school. It is, he admitted during the orientation for the most recent cohort of Year 7s, the fastest way to find out what students really think and how well a school is really doing—the manifestation of a school’s culture.

Often, when we read about school culture in the news, it’s framed in adverse terms – a culture of bullying or toxicity. Perhaps this is because it’s easier to identify culture when it’s negatively impacting us, like noticing a bad smell in the room. But when things are working well, it can be harder to pin down.

Adam Voigt is a former Principal who is now a prominent voice in the Australian education media conversation.  He is also the founder and CEO of Real Schools, a burgeoning organisation focused on helping schools develop strong, restorative cultures. To School News he said, “School culture is best defined as a set of behaviours – those we encourage and those that we tolerate. These behaviours are enormous in number and cannot be addressed formally, although many have tried.”

Often, the idea of culture is mistakenly tied up with philosophy or values, but school culture can’t be embroidered in Latin on your blazer pocket nor printed beneath the school crest in the assembly hall. Values and mottos can talk the talk, but only through actions and behaviours, can schools actually walk the walk.

Shenton College
Image supplied by Shenton College

More than words

Adam Pengelly is the Associate Principal at Shenton College. He started at Shenton College as an English teacher back in 2006, knowing little about the school which, at the time, was still in its infancy. “I never would have imagined staying in a school for as long as I have; what has kept me here is a strong alignment with the values of the school and a culture that is always looking to provide opportunities to enrich learning and promote growth.

“At Shenton College, we have a number of slogans and mottos – Much more than Marks, Learning for Life; Proudly public, proudly inclusive, proudly excellent – and it would be accurate to say that they are lived, they aren’t just words on posters.”

While all schools ultimately have the same goal – to educate children – the process of doing so and the environment in which it is done varies wildly. But children flourish when they feel safe and seen, a culture in which positive growth can take place.

The Middle School at Shenton has a defined physical area, a separate timetable and a distinct group of staff and educators dedicated solely to Years 7 and 8. This has created a safe and separate space for the younger students who, for the most part, come from small feeder primary schools whose entire student population is on par with – or smaller than –  the number of students in Year 7 alone. This is part of the Shenton culture, allowing the junior students to transition more slowly into the secondary environment.

Chantal Simpson has been the Head of Middle School at Shenton College for a number of years. Working at the College was appealing because of its structure. “I’ve been at Shenton College for nine years. What originally attracted me to the job was the fact that Shenton was one of the last schools in Western Australia that still had a fully functioning middle school,” she explained. “As a middle years of schooling trained educator, this was considered the ‘holy land’ for me. I knew I had found a place where the values, beliefs and culture were going to match my own.”

Shenton College
Image supplied by Shenton College

This sentiment is echoed by Dr Karen Bontempo, the Curriculum Leader at Shenton College Deaf Education Centre which is co-located within Shenton College. Auslan was introduced as an elective subject in 2014, while all students are exposed to the language via interpreters at assemblies and drama productions and acknowledgement of the deaf community with signage and video captions in class. Inclusivity is not simply a word on a crest when it comes to the deaf students at Shenton.

In an earlier report about the dual nature of Shenton College, she said “Deaf students can go into any of their classes and find a peer – deaf or hearing – who can communicate with them directly (instead of via an interpreter).” She added that what is different about Shenton College is that it challenges “the wider school community to adapt in order to genuinely include a deaf child – rather than expecting the deaf child to adapt to their environment. This is quite a paradigm shift.”

Workplace Culture

Voigt says: “I’ve thought deeply about how to create a culture where the right behaviours are encouraged, celebrated and recognised, and also where undesirable behaviours are starved of oxygen.  In simple terms, it’s about school leaders choosing to think a great deal more about how they are leading than what they are trying to lead.”

So in many respects, the culture of a school is also the workplace culture of the staff, with the two closely interlinked. As Pengelly puts it: “Young people are very quick to see hypocrisy – do as I say, not as I do. So that places an innate importance on both language, actions and processes to be consistent and cohesive in what [staff] are trying to achieve, and how they are working to achieve it.”

Strategic planning at Shenton ensures that the values the College is trying to promote are shared across all cohorts – students and staff. “The learning mindsets and values that we articulate are just as relevant for leadership, staff and parents as they are for our students,” adds Pengelly.

Simpson said that the workplace and broader school culture at Shenton College are quite similar in many ways, which explains why it is so strong. The core branding and philosophy of “Care, collaboration and curiosity” does not focus solely on the student body, but the entire community.

She elaborated: “The most significant difference for me is the level of trust that I am shown as a professional working here. I have worked at Shenton as a classroom teacher, and now as a member of the Executive team. I have never felt ‘micro-managed’ at any level, and I have been trusted to get on with what I need to do in order to provide world-class opportunities for both staff and students. During my time as a teacher, my line manager and the leadership team, in general, were focused on removing obstacles from my path so that I could focus on the kids – which was the support that I really needed.”

Shenton College
Image supplied by Shenton College

Making culture happen

One of the advantages of having such a large student body is that individuals are more likely to find a group of like-minded peers. Helping students achieve this in the lower years is done partially through lunchtime clubs that are often initiated by the children and then run by staff. From running to robotics, LGBTIQ+ to Lego there is a club for almost everyone. If a student is a Taylor Swift-loving, D&D-playing crochet-lover, they will be able to find a friend with similar hobbies. Pengelly says, “Year groups of over 500 can provide lots of opportunities, but you have to work and invest time into making sure students feel connected to each other and the culture of the school.”

However, he admits that for staff, the size of the school can also come with challenges: “Schools tend to organise themselves into teams – learning areas or year groups – and as you get larger in terms of size and numbers, that can easily involve segregated silos where micro-cultures evolve that can lose contact with the bigger picture of the school.”

As a result, culture needs to be actively worked on and consciously considered. “If something is going to be sustainable,” Pengelly says, “it can’t stand still. I don’t think you can preserve a culture; you have to actively renew and invest in it. You have to make sure that your values, your mottos, and your beliefs are not just words on a crest or a business plan – they have to be lived, referred to and owned by all your community.”

Some practical ways to build culture include having a leadership team who are both visible and approachable, to students, staff and parents. Visible, evolving artefacts such as classroom posters and policy documents that explain what is done and why. And finally, positively reinforcing the culture in practical and observable ways. Simpson explains: “Having awards that celebrate things other than academic achievement reinforces the idea that Shenton is ‘much more than marks’. These things become our rituals or school traditions that reinforce our culture.”

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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