Create a coffee culture

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Issue 116 | Autumn Term 2 2020

Headteacher Emmanuel Botwe believes that creating the right culture and values in your school or college is vital to the success of student outcomes, especially in the midst of the current health crisis.

The only thing we have is one another. The only competitive advantage we have is the culture and values of the company. Anyone can open up a coffee store. We have no technology, we have no patent. All we have is the relationship around the values of the company and what we bring to the customer every day. And we all have to own it.” Howard Schultz, CEO, Starbucks. 

This is not the best time to be opening a coffee shop. Having said that, the quote above perfectly sums up the importance of culture. I am a firm believer that the right culture and values are absolutely critical in all high-performing organisations, whether your aim is to help the world become more environmentally friendly, turn out billions of dollars in profit or grow a great community school. Put simply, you can have the smartest strategic development plan in the world but if the relationships among the members of the school community are poor then delivery and student outcomes in the widest sense will not be what you want them to be.

The importance of organisational culture Never has the importance of organisational culture been so critical than during the rapidly changing events of the last months. As school and college leaders, we have faced monumental challenges, including producing centre-assessed grades, reintegrating and re-socialising millions of youngsters who have been out of school since March, interpreting a whole raft of government guidance and feeding the poorest children in our schools. These are only a handful of considerations. I could have named you hundreds more. Leading schools against the backdrop of a global pandemic has brought tremendous challenges to us all. 

Nurture relationships 

My reflection point during this period has been the importance of relationships. The bigger and deeper the relationships you have with all stakeholders in school, the more influential you can be. The more influence you have, the more you can achieve. Over the past few months, we have all had to ask staff to go over and above: create online resources, keep their distance from one another while in school, adapt to meetings conducted remotely, prepare work for students not in school and keep in contact with the most vulnerable students.

In the end, I think that the greater the strength of the relationships you have with people, the greater the discretionary effort will be. This goes for students as well. This is particularly important in the next few months where there is so much uncertainty about how the academic year will play out. How do we get them to engage in the learning unless we have created and continue to cultivate strong relationships with them? How do we get parents to trust us and understand that we have the best interest of their sons and daughters at heart, if we don’t have a supportive and open dialogue with them?

With this in mind, we have developed a communications strategy that is based around cultivating and developing the existing relationships we already have. We know that students will periodically be out of school, so we will need to utilise technological methods to keep in contact.

The other half

At the moment, school and college leaders are under enormous pressure to ensure that students ‘catch up’ and that our examination groups are prepared for summer assessments. We also face constraints in terms of how we organise students. It is understandable how under these circumstances, extra-curricular provision can take a back seat. Having said that, I think it would be a mistake to neglect what we might call ‘the other half’. Our school ethos has always been built around cross-year-group extra-curricular activities such as the school orchestra, house pantomime and end of term productions. These events just have to happen but will need to do so in a way that involves the creative use of technology. At our school, we have continued to deliver whole-school virtual assemblies that aim to give meaning and context to what is happening. We’ve continued to run multi-year-group house events and competitions virtually. We’ll also continue to use our social media account to publicise all the good things that our youngsters are doing. We feel it is more important than ever that students feel part of a wider community beyond their ‘bubbles’. 

Know your team 

Nourishing staff during this time is also important and I know that they have appreciated the raft of online social events, for example quizzes, celebrations and counselling support. Additionally, ASCL has continued to provide excellent online CPD ( This period has provided us with a new way of thinking about how we can connect our staff with the very best training from all over the country. As is always the case, your context is important and you will know what will work for your school or college. 

Strong personal relationships are crucial in schools. The feeling that you work for an organisation that is on the road to achieving a great goal and that cares for individuals is a powerful motivator. 

A simple mantra we regularly use in our SLT is “know your team”. Be curious about each and every member of your team. Get to know who is in their family, how their kids are getting on in school, how their pets are. The cumulative effects of these personal interactions across a day, month, term and year is massive. People will do that little bit extra, being more inclined when they feel valued and cared for to dig in when times are tough. I think it is worth paying attention to how we can keep these relationships going as we adapt to an increasingly online environment. 

We will all get through this. I think the ASCL community is a great organisation that allows us to share ideas, talk about any challenges we face and celebrate the great work we are all doing. The country is depending on us to lead the way.

How do we get parents to trust us and understand that we have the best interest of their sons and daughters at heart, if we don’t have a supportive and open dialogue with them?

Emmanuel Botwe
Headteacher of Tytherington School in Macclesfield, Cheshire and member of ASCL Council

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