Skip main navigation

What is the Culture of a School?

In Shaping School Culture, Deal and Peterson (2016) explore the importance of school culture and the features of school life which help to define it.

We feel it reasonable to propose that the appropriateness of different behaviours can depend entirely on the context of the situation and their consistency with the principles of the organisation.

What is the Culture of a School?

This is where culture comes in. What is the culture of your school? What defines it? How does the organisation greet challenges? How do you even define or measure your school’s culture?

In Shaping School Culture, Deal and Peterson (2016) explore the importance of school culture and the features of school life which help to define it.

Culture of a School: Artifacts, Architecture and Routines

Symbols represent intangible cultural values and beliefs. They are the outward manifestation of those things we cannot comprehend on a rational level, shared sentiments which capture meaning and significance and influence our thoughts, motivation and behaviour.

Some of the more obvious symbolic artefacts which influence the culture of a school include:

  • Mission statements: Messages and statements of purpose displayed everywhere in the corridors and classrooms of the school.
  • Displays of student work and achievements: Hallways become galleries celebrating student creativity, awards and events.
  • Websites and social media: Videos, blogs, photographs and statements of the school’s values.
  • Symbols of architecture: Where a school positions its special needs department carries a powerful message about how integrated the pupils are in the school environment, but also in the attitudes which pervade all the decisions made about the value of different groups of students.
  • Symbols of diversity: Flags of other nations, images of minority students’ work and home countries.
  • Symbols of action: How does the headteacher spend their time and who with?
  • Symbols of storytelling: What are the stories that define the school’s day-to-day life? Who tells these stories and what do they convey about the culture of the school?

Elements that shape the Culture of a School


The history and traditions of the school are important symbols of the current ethos. Schools need to be equal to their history and displays of bygone eras, pupil exercise books from days gone by, old fountain pens, craft items produced in the school workshops, medals and photographs of students from years past.

Myth, vision and values

Every tightly knit human group anchors its existence in a unifying myth or a core story that orients the group’s worldview and channels behaviour.

What’s your school’s core story and who is it about? What are its core beliefs and values?


Rituals are central to our existence. We remind ourselves of our core values, renew our sense of who we are and bond with others in our group through the celebration in rituals.

What are the events in your school year which members of the school recognise as symbols of your values and which occur every year?


Celebrations of success, spotlights on values and recognition for the special achievements and contributions of individuals.

Your task

Reflect on your own school. Which of these features are they doing well? Which could they improve on?


Deal, T. E, & Peterson, K. D. (2016). Shaping School Culture. Jossey Bass

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
This article is from the free online

Educational Leadership: Improving Schools through Effective Leadership

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now