Culture (2)

Building Agency Through School Culture

Dr Phil Cummins explores how schools can build agency through a culture based on integrity and optimism.


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A good school builds a culture of agency using the resilience of consensus around its ethos.

It cultivates a deep understanding of and agreement about what the purpose of the school is, and how it seeks to serve its local, regional and global communities through the enactment of its ethos. It consults with its stakeholders to secure their ongoing support, less through seeking compliance with words in a document and more often through the many, varied and willing contributions that create a living history that weaves a continuing narrative from yesterday to today to tomorrow. People in the community speak well of the school because it has earned its place in their personal affection and professional regard. It cannot ever be all things to all people, but it can strive to ensure that everything it does is directed towards its goals for the whole education of whole people, and that its community understands and respects this.

At the same time, while a school must agree on its collective sense of purpose and how this plays out in the development of its learning community, there is also a need for this community to cherish and protect the individual relationships of character apprenticeship to help learners to find and claim the agency of their own personal learning journey:

 I really encourage learners I work with to be self determined, to find their own path, to take notice of the paths that I followed and other people have followed. But really to understand the quest is to find their own paths … and always be mentored by more than one person because that then puts the responsibility on you to find that path built on the knowledge and advice that you're receiving.

Andy Hargreaves | Game Changers insight*

Locating Agency in School Culture


Agency is promoted within a school culture that is strengthened by a shared commitment to educate students so that they might demonstrate the integrity to lead meaningful lives as good people – this draws on the employability skill of self management,​ which is about building personal organisation, resilience, adaptability, self-awareness, response to feedback and personal responsibility.​ What does it look like for the different layers of a school’s community of inquiry and practice that aspires towards this graduate outcome of good people?


Creating Excellence In Agency Through School Culture

If this is what a culture of agency looks like in a good school, then how might such a school use the four major sources of agency in its community (students, systems, culture and adults) to stretch itself towards excellence in school climate, character and culture**?

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Adriano and I describe the essential challenge of the leadership that strengthens agency through school culture like this in our book***:

To help a school on its quest to honour the new social contract of education and support its students to thrive in the world, we will need the strength to step forward together into a preferred future. In this future, the vision and vocabulary for education are shared; the velocity, the shape, and the trajectory of change are designed and implemented to meet internal and external needs; and the values and value propositions of the school are agreed on by the school community.

Ref: Game Changers: Leading Today's Learning for Tomorrow's World (Hawker Brownlow Education 2022) p.45

A checklist for this work might look like the following:

  • Have we co-created foundational statements about our vision, mission and strategy in partnership with our community?
  • Is there evidence of strong, positive leadership, empowering governance, and supportive executive and operational structures and systems that will help our school to develop and implement a shared articulation and understanding of our educational goals through a framework for education?
  • Are we prepared to adopt an agreed approach to the development of valid measures of our educational processes and product?
  • How effectively are we in engaging our stakeholders in building consensus around the aims and practices of our educational program?
  • Are we helping our school earn a reputation as a good school that achieves its purpose?

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* You can listen to Andy Hargreaves’ Game Changers Episode here:

** You can learn more about the culture of a learning community that grows together here:

*** You can purchase your copy of Game Changers: Leading Today’s Learning For Tomorrow’s World  here: 

Dr Phil Cummins FRSA FACEL FIML is the Managing Partner of a School for tomorrow, Managing Director at CIRCLE – The Centre for Innovation, Research, Creativity & Leadership in Education, Associate Professor of Education & Enterprise at Alphacrucis University College, and co-host of the Game Changers podcast series.

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