What one thing is essential in a great school? Answer: High quality relationships (Just takes a bit of gardening)

Peter Drucker, management guru made a great statement:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

We can have all the best plans and ideas in the world, but unless the culture of your school is in the right place, nothing is going to work for the long term. So what is at the heart of culture?

People and relationships working together.

As the word ‘culture’ implies, it requires ‘cultivating’, just like a garden, regular and specialised work that is daily, weekly, seasonally, annually. It requires weeding, fertilizing and pruning and sometimes even a complete makeover, then more weeding, fertilizing and pruning. Cultivating a beautiful or purposeful garden never stops and ensuring the right school culture is just the same.

High quality relationships are essential in a great school that supports today’s learning paradigm, one that engages young, passionate learners and at the same time motivates and inspires committed educators.

Over the past few weeks I have co-hosted a study tour of UK and Europe, that takes leaders on a literal and professional journey. We visited creative learning and play spaces, and study innovative pedagogical approaches.





From my observation the effectiveness of each element is strengthened or diminished when deliberate attention is paid to the quality of relationships within the school, which includes:

  • Student to adult
  • Adult to adult
  • School to stakeholder
  • Leadership to the entire community

‘All will Succeed’

This is the mission statement of a Essa Academy, new 11-16 school in the Greater Manchester area. Located in a demographic of extreme social need, generational unemployment and a multi-racial community, with 46 different languages.




The school is united by the mission ‘All will succeed’ – the overarching statement that guides practice and culture. This academy is a reinvention of a so-called ‘failing school’, now in a new building, with new leadership, governance and culture.

On arrival the atmosphere of warmth and friendliness pervaded. Relationships matter at this school. In the car park we were met, greeted and welcomed. The reception area leads to an open common space, this is everybody’s space, anytime it’s needed, not just the dinner room.




At the start we were having coffee and a chat in a large communal space. In the same locale a small class gathered around some tables with their teacher, nearby a couple of teachers were planning and a young student was having a serious meeting with a couple of adults. No one felt they needed to hide away for any of these meetings, it was a communal space, for the activities of the community.

As we heard from Abdul Chohan (@abdulchohan), one of the school’s directors and then talked with teachers and students, the pervading culture shouted out loud:

High quality relationships are a significant value at this school.

Our tour group finished the morning with a one-on-one with students, freedom to ask about the school and learning, their hopes and dreams. I took this opportunity to take a couple of photos, then started talking to Sandy, the teacher accompanying them. As we talked about the students and the school, the amazing culture, and as I watched these well-presented students articulately and confidently communicate with members of our group, Sandy said to me,

“I just love these kids, I love them to bits.”

How do we develop the culture that supports strategy? Put people first:

  • Articulate an inclusive and bold purpose – ‘All will succeed’
  • Technology used creatively supports the learning and working – Not the other way around
  • Share spaces – remove the barriers that support a ‘territorialist’ mindset
  • Enable ‘planned coincidences’ – places where people can connect










Just like gardening, developing this culture takes time and work, it is modeled and reinforced from the leadership:

  • Daily – observing, admiring and appreciating: attention to formal and informal interactions and use of the spaces
  • Weekly – weeding: following through on structures that reinforce the vision and mission
  • Seasonally – pruning and fertilising: watching for shifts and making adjustments
  • Annually – assessing and observing the landscape: taking a health check, restating the vision and mission of the school


Essa Academy in the media:

The school where every teacher has an ipad and every student an ipod

Eton Masters visit Manchester for lesson in teaching by ipod

3 thoughts on “What one thing is essential in a great school? Answer: High quality relationships (Just takes a bit of gardening)

  1. Thank you for your essay about pruning, weeding and cultivating in general. Your focus on relationships over strategy (or curriculum) is key. There’s a string of schools based on the “big picture” philosophy that puts relationships on the same level as rigor and relevance of the curriculum. See http://www.metcenter.org and http://www.bigpicture.org. These relationships are key to getting a strategy in place.


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