Creating a positive school culture

For secondary students in low socioeconomic and remote settings, reaching the ‘finish line' of Year 12 graduation can present a challenge.

Yet, one Western Australian school, with a 45 per cent Indigenous population, experienced a remarkable improvement in graduation numbers, due to sustained change in the school culture.

When Gary Downsborough became principal of Broome Senior High School it had been labelled ‘difficult to staff' and faced a poor reputation in the community. By the time his seven years of leadership had come to a close, the school was awarded the title Top Public WA Senior High School, thanks to improved attendance, graduation, enrolment and NAPLAN results.

Within a decade, graduation numbers had risen from 20 to nearly 60, with four out of five Year 12 graduands entering further training, study, or meaningful employment.

Here, Downsborough shares strategies for administrators aiming to build a whole-staff, respectful approach to teaching and learning; an approach where students take responsibility for improving their quality of life.

Establishing your leadership in a ‘difficult' school

When joining the executive team of a new school, Downsborough says it is crucial to take the time to learn about the school environment. ‘Observation and listening are all-important. What direction does the school have? What are its strengths? What might be required for it to move forward?'

Challenging social contexts are difficult for staff as well as students. As principal, he found that it was important to recognise and verbally acknowledge every positive interaction between staff and students. ‘Compliment people on positives you have heard. If you hope to build a positive culture, then you must role model this by celebrating even the small successes.'

He says this approach enabled staff to feel supported in their roles, and part of the team. Eventually, your staff will embody the vision that leaders portray.

Getting students on board

For the principal, establishing the desired school culture should be foremost in every interaction between the principal, staff and the student body. Downsborough explains that ‘If you can empower students then you will have fewer problems with discipline and achievement levels will rise. Set high expectations for students to aspire to and nurture those who are a long way from those expectations.'

When he first took on the principalship he made a concerted effort of getting to know the most troubled students with the aim of building positive respectful relationships and developing their capacity to succeed. Downsborough's primary method was to establish himself as monitor of a particular behavioural offence, such as inappropriate language. He would ask staff to report incidents of inappropriate behaviour such as swearing, racism or bullying language directly to him, which enabled him to work with offenders personally.

The tactic was aimed at getting to know and understand the students' backgrounds and circumstances, and to use this knowledge to motivate them to improve their personal vision. He believes empowering students who came from difficult environments was a key aspect of his school's reversal of fortunes and recommends that ,for all educators, raising the students' expectation of their own capacity should be a key focus of any behaviour management strategy.

He models his behaviour management approach on the work of Glasser (1986). This model involves encouraging students to take and accept responsibility for their own learning and behaviours using questions and statements of fact.

Downsborough believes that a discipline system based on respect, choice, and appropriate consequences will lead to a reduction in behaviour incidents and a more positive school environment. When holding disciplinary conversations with students regarding misbehaviour, he always tried to get students to focus on their future, and to think about the long-term consequences of behavioural decisions.

His questioning technique was to the point, asking questions like: ‘What happens if you do this in a workplace or in a pub, what outcome will you get?' and ‘How will this type of behaviour affect your quality of life?' He also reiterated to students that a person with a ‘quality life' has more options when they come to major life decisions.

Building on student strengths

Secondly, Downsborough recommends that when managing behavioural infractions, every educator must look for student strengths and build on these, rather than focusing on negative character traits. A good behaviour management policy makes explicit the consequences for misbehaviour and recognises that public humiliation and criticism have a negative effect on a student's relationship with staff.

Encouraging students when they make improvements can have a huge impact on student behavioural choices. This approach focuses on building student capacity to make good behavioural decisions. He comments that, at the end of the day, he wanted his students to understand that what they put in to their education would have a lasting impact on future income and life opportunities.

A third aspect of the principal's ‘culture of success' is that students should be given a chance to demonstrate their strengths and personality in a positive way at school.

Downsborough utilised a school assembly model that allowed students to be the centre of attention for all the ‘right' reasons. In this model, students ran the sound and media components and regularly performed dance or music as solo, group or class items. This built the school ‘soul' in the same way as sporting successes can do.

He says that, through this approach, students started to look forward to assemblies and competed for the opportunity to perform. Such experiences developed student self-esteem, allowed the school staff to appreciate students' diversity, and engendered positive school culture.

His final piece of advice for other school leaders is that it is important for staff to develop their emotional intelligence. A positive school environment requires that staff genuinely listen to students by reading their body language, hearing what is said, not just the words, apologising where necessary, and going the extra mile to build respect with the students. As Downsborough points out, ‘When did you last learn something from someone you didn't respect?'

Measuring success

The most important statistic for a school is the value-adding, Downsborough says. ‘For example, how do your students' NAPLAN longitudinal scores improve in comparison with the Australian average? Are your attendance and graduation rates increasing, and your suspension rate decreasing?' He adds ‘Above all, a successful school creates students who contribute to the economy, communicate respectfully, and build successful relationships.'


Glasser, W. (1986). Control theory in the classroom. Perennial Library/Harper & Row Publishers.

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At your own school, what strategies are in place to ensure a ‘culture of success’?

How are you monitoring the impact on staff and students?

As a leader, what steps can you and your staff take to develop a healthy school culture?