Curious If A School Has A “Good” Culture? We’ve Got Useful Tips For You!

When parents browse the school threads on our KSP forum, they will often come across this question: “What is the school culture like?”

Yet, when we parents talk about “school culture,” we may have differing concerns and priorities, and these may include the following:

  • the school’s definition of “success” and its academic and co-curricular track record
  • student life (school facilities, enrichment activities, and other opportunities for connection and growth)
  • the general behaviour of students
  • the calibre of teachers
  • the principal’s experience and reputation
  • the core values of the school
  • the strength of the school’s alumni network

How can we help our children to assess a school’s culture? Read on to find out.

Use The Official School Guides

Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) has recently revamped its online guides for primary and secondary schools, so that it is much more user-friendly for parents. Read these guides to find out about the national curriculum, as well as support options available for those with special needs. You can also use the MOE’s School Finder to browse and shortlist schools by the electives and co-curricular activities offered, mother tongue language options, and more.

Do Your Own Research

Google the schools that you’re interested in, to find news articles and social media posts that might give you useful insights. If the school has a social media page (usually Facebook), you can also get a sense of the school culture by browsing the page and reading the updates and comments. Is there evidence of the principal’s (or teachers’) rapport with the students? Are the school’s updates mostly about achievements, or is there a greater focus on school spirit and shared values?

If you have teacher friends, ask them to check on a school’s reputation and work culture. If they happen to work in the school that you’re interested in, ask, off the record, about the findings of the “school climate survey.” An unhealthy work culture can only breed unhappy teachers — as well as students.

If no one in your personal network has the scoop on the schools you’re researching, visit our forum (or use our search function) to find relevant threads for the schools you’re interested in, and join the discussions there.

Visit Schools And Keep Your Eyes Open

For primary schools, open house events have traditionally been held between May and July. You can call the schools directly to get the dates, or check in early May for an update.

For secondary schools, open house events are held in April and May for those interested in the Direct School Admission (DSA) exercise, or at year-end, for the rest of the students. Junior colleges and polytechnics will typically hold their open house events in January.

Before visiting these schools, prepare questions for the teachers and students — read our open house posts for a list of questions that you can ask at secondary schools and post-secondary institutions.

When you’re at a school, observe the school’s displays — wall displays, student projects, and murals — to get a sense of what’s important to a school. “My son’s school has a mural that shows a child in a wheelchair, which highlights its commitment to inclusivity,” says a parent. “Other wall displays feature the leadership values that the school wants to inculcate in its students.”

Another place that you should pop into is the school’s washroom, say some educators. The condition of a school’s washrooms will tell you a great deal about the student mindset — whether students are responsible, and have respect for their shared environment.

For parents keen on a diverse environment, observe the crowds at the open house events, or visit on a regular school day to get a better gauge of the student population. “In my sons’ school there is a wider cultural mix, which is good,” says a mother, whose sons attend a neighbourhood school. “From the parent workshops, I’ve met parents who are Spanish, Australian, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, and PRC nationals.”

Some parents also advise visiting schools during the pick-up or drop-off hours, as it’s a chance to see how students feel about their school, in an unstaged setting. Children looking unhappy or crying at the school gate could be a red flag. The cars driven by parents will also provide clues about the socioeconomic mix of the student body.

What Makes A School Great?

A KSP member defines a “good school culture” as a school with “good kids and encouraging teachers.” But is there more to consider?

According to Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and expert in education leadership and management, a school with a strong culture is one with many direct links of communication, between educators, counsellors, and families.

A school’s culture is also driven by the beliefs and actions of the leaders and others within the organisation. “A good culture arises from messages that promote traits like collaboration, honesty, and hard work,” she says.

In a school with a healthy culture or “climate,” students should experience the following:

  • Safety: The school should have a strong anti-bullying stance to ensure not just physical safety within the school, but emotional security as well. Teachers should also respect the emotional well-being of their students.
  • Support: The academic environment must be conducive for all students to learn and grow.
  • Connection: There should be a steady flow of positive interactions between students, teachers, and other relevant groups.
  • Belonging: Students should have a sense of pride about their school.

According to education expert Samuel Casey Carter, who authored the book “On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Strong Character,” the best schools have four traits in common:

  • A strong belief that culture determines outcomes.
  • A nurturing but demanding culture.
  • A culture committed to student success.
  • A culture of people, principles, and purpose.

You can read more about Carter’s research in his book, or in the sample chapter here.

For parents who are thinking ahead to the uncertain future, this observation by Terry Heick, author and former teacher, may resonate:

“In this era of information access, smart clouds, and worsening socioeconomic disparity, we may want to consider whether we should be teaching content at all, or rather teaching students to think, design their own learning pathways, and create and do extraordinary things that are valuable to them in their place?”

Heick’s extensive list of the “characteristics” that make up a “good” school — such as “A good school teaches thought, not content” — may provide inspiration and much food for thought.