Vision, values, ethos

This blog post arose as a response to an exercise set for this Leading an Independent School Course, completed in 2015.
Vision, values, mission and ethos are much talked about aspects of good leadership in schools. In order to be inspected by the ISI schools must have stated aims - which they dictate - against which they will be assessed. Aims and mission refer to more or less the same thing, but as this HBR article shows there is a big difference between aims (or purpose) and vision, values and ethos.
Aims are relatively straightforward to compose and will differ little from school to school given that, ultimately, all schools are trying to do roughly the same thing. Vision, values and ethos however are a whole different kettle of fish and ought to differ significantly from school to school. I have visited the websites of the following schools:

  1. Warwick School (where I first worked)
  2. Uppingham School (my second school)
  3. Ellesemere College (Oswestry’s biggest and closest competition)
  4. Rendcomb College (a similar school to Oswestry)
  5. Oswestry School (where I currently work)
Uppingham School
Vision and values are not explicitly stated, though Richard Harman’s piece harks back to the values baked into the place by the visionary Victorian Headmaster Edward Thring:
The legacy of Edward Thring remains with us in a very real sense to this day. His pioneering beliefs in the values of an all-round education have determined many of the School’s distinguishing characteristics: that Houses should be small and family-like; that pupils should have privacy; that an all-round education should be offered to a broad range of children and that they are happier and learn better in inspiring surroundings.

Under a section headed ‘Why Uppingham’ there is an interesting set of sub headings that try to encapsulate what studying at the school is like. A quote from a pupil tops the piece: ‘It’s as cool to carry a cell as a cricket bag’ – clear reference to Uppingham’s fondness for music (a legacy of the great Stephen Winkley) and to its commitment to ‘all round education’. It is worth mentioning here that it was this same ‘all-roundness’ that was so mercilessly pilloried by one of Uppingham’s most famous sons. He’s worth quoting at length:

The public school headmaster and the public school prospectus use the word ‘philosophy’ much as Californian Valley Girls use the word ‘like’, ceaselessly and senselessly. It was very much Uppingham’s philosophy, for example, to apply the precepts and principles of Edward Thring to the modern world. In other words, they had added a metalwork division and a screen-printing room to the carpentry shop. It was very much Uppingham’s philosophy to develop the potential of every pupil. In other words, the school’s A-level results and Oxbridge success rate were well below average. It was very much Uppingham’s philosophy (even in my day unironically expressed) to run out polite, cheerful, all round chaps. In other words the average Uppinghamian is a well-mannered, decent fellow with a stout heart but not too much between the ears. (Stephen Fry, Moab is My Washpot)

Having dug this out at revisited it I found its sentiments poisoning my view of almost every website I then went on to visit. Innocuous statements of ethos like this:

We take pride in the achievements of each and every student according to his or her abilities, not just in the achievements of the brightest and the best.

..become loaded with more nefarious meaning (our numbers are low and we’ll take anyone…?) I tried very hard to scrub such cynicism from my mind as my website trawl continued.

It’s harder to take an objective look at the place you find yourself currently ensconced. But there’s no getting around the fact that Oswestry’s new website is a big improvement on the old one – particularly for those (the majority) who visit it on a tablet. On the ‘About Oswestry’ page is a statement of ethos that I remember Douglas Robb, our former headmaster, penning a few years ago. There is the usual stuff about ‘educating the whole child’ (I have yet to find a school that admits to neglecting certain facets of a child’s education and shamelessly, say, focusing on their academic development.) But then we get this:
Oswestry School places a very high emphasis on good manners and personal integrity; we are not ashamed of our traditional approach to pastoral care and we enjoy close relationships between pupils and staff.

The emphasis on a traditional approach is unusual (and is not, I hasten to add a reference to us using the birch or the slipper when the need arises!) The interesting thing is that the sentence only really fills with meaning when you know the man behind it. You’d have to visit the school to find out.

Ellesemere College
Ellesemere College has what approximates to a statement of vision and values on the splash page of their website (there is nothing else buried away that does the job more explicitly). The opening paragraph starts with this:
‘You are looking for a school which reflects your beliefs and values’.

After that several paragraphs, all harmless enough in themselves, manage to craft what might be called a Barnum statement for school marketeers. There is nothing here to disagree with, but I am not convinced that what is said marks Ellesmere out as particularly unique or gives us a hint as to what its defining characteristics are.

Rendcomb College
A slick, if conventional, looking website, with an ‘About Rendcomb’ page on which are listed some aims, the vision of the founder, a statement about ‘Rendcomb values learning’ and stress placed on the importance of boarding. The list of aims are worthy and laudable, but they are rather dull and unlikely to be read by many – they are the sort of things that lie tucked away in a curriculum policy somewhere for extraction when the inspectors call... I think brevity has got to be key in the articulation of vision/values.
A lot has changed since I left in 2002. The website is clean looking and minimalist, with social media links discretely present on every page. The ‘About Warwick’ page is mainly factual about facilities, though there is mention of academic and extra-curricular excellent. Tucked into one of the paragraphs we get this:
Academic excellent is important, but more so are the values that go with it. At Warwick School we aim to develop responsible, resilient and compassionate young men of character, equipped to succeed in a changing world.
This is good, though it is hardly distinctive, new or original. I doubt there is a school in the country that wouldn’t subscribe to such values. Rather like with Ellesmere’s I came away wondering whether there was something of a Barnum statement feel to this too.

Final Thoughts

How convincing do you find these statements of values?
I find the most convincing statements ones that are brief – one or two sentences at most and that try to encapsulate what lies behind life at the school. Having browsed through these sites I think probably the most powerful statement in articulating the ‘flavour’ of the school was the one from the Uppingham pupil: ‘It’s as cool to carry a cello as a cricket bag’. By being from a pupil rather than a marketing team, or the headmaster it carries a little bit more of a ring of truth to it.
Is there anything which you think might separate vision and values in the independent sector from vision and values in any other type of school?
I would like to think that independent schools can be a little bit more forthright in their statement of vision and values. However a desperate need to be ‘all things to all men’ for many of these schools means that they all purport to be selling much the same thing. It is interesting that Kirsy von Malaise found no reference to values or vision on the site of Magdalen College School. Could it be that the wealthier and more established the school the less they need to bother concocting their own Barnum statements?
How important is it for any school to have a clear statement of what they believe or what their priorities are?
Clearly it is very important for the head and the staff to have a firm take on what they and the school stand for. I also think it’s important that there’s buy-in from everyone in the organisation. I remember when Richard Harman took over Uppingham we had a big staff session in which we all shared ideas about what the school should be like and where it should go. From that meeting emerged a set of values that we all had a stake in.

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