3 ways to put relationships at the heart of your school culture

April 10, 2018
Katherine Goring

Katherine Cocker-Goring

Vice Principal at Engineering UTC Northern Lincolnshire

In September 2017, staff at my school came together to make a commitment to developing positive relationships with every single one of our students.

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This blog is part of Ambition:Feed's school culture and ethos challenge. Find more tips and discussion on the Ambition:Feed homepage.

Being a University Technical College, we admit students at the start of Year 10. We miss the first three years of secondary schooling, and consequently, three years of potential relationship building.

Our mission is to accelerate student progress from the moment they step through the door, so building meaningful relationships with our students is fundamental to securing strong outcomes – as I believe students learn best from staff who care about them.

For schools in challenging contexts, this is even more critical, especially when working with the most vulnerable students. Here are three ways we foster relationships and make them a key part of our school culture.   

1. Shake hands with all pupils

For me, it all began when the principal handed me a copy of Paul Dix’s ‘When the Adult Changes, Everything Changes.' This is the book that inspired our ‘adult consistencies’.

If you visit our college, the first thing you will notice is that we shake hands…a lot. Ofsted even commented: “During the inspection, a number of pupils were keen to engage with inspectors in mature conversations and to shake hands.”

Standing at the entrance to a classroom to welcome students is nothing new in education, but with the addition of shaking hands, we have created a culture where every student feels important, valued and respected as soon as they walk into a lesson.


2. No-one shouts in anger

‘No one shouts in anger here’ was our principal’s first message to new staff in September. We believe it is the adult that determines how safe the classroom feels, so this is our most important adult consistency and is non-negotiable.

For students with attachment difficulties, experience of trauma, or a history of neglect, shouting isn’t just disrespectful: it’s harmful.

If you like the idea of instituting this in your own school, my advice would be to be to talk first to the members of staff who will be most affected by the new consistency. It is vital to provide alternative strategies for managing behaviour, so they feel empowered by the new system.

3. Pupils dress the part

One of the most visual representations of our ethos is that our students do not wear a school uniform. Students and staff are instead expected to wear ‘business attire’. For visitors, one of the most striking things about the students at the UTC is that students are so well-dressed.

Students take an immense pride in their appearance, and although wearing a tie is optional (as ties are increasingly less popular in business-dress in the modern business world), at least half of all male students choose to wear a tie and tie clip. A significant proportion of students even opt to wear a three-piece suit.

Part of the reasoning for this policy is to prepare students for the world of work, but even more importantly, it is to promote a sense of equality between staff and students. This was highlighted in our Ofsted report, where inspectors observed that our uniform policy “successfully promotes high levels of mutual respect.”


Our efforts to transform relationships between staff and students have resulted in a positive, productive, and professional school culture. We have created a culture in which every child can thrive, ensuring that they are at the front of the queue for the best apprenticeships and university places.

Not only this, but we have created a working environment where staff are happy, and where staff want to stay. Improved personal relationships benefit everyone and our culture has enhanced the emotional well-being of everyone in the building.

Are relationships central to your school's culture? Get involved in the discussion over at Ambition:Feed - tweet us using #ambitionfeed or join our Facebook group. 

Katherine is a current participant on our 2016 Future Leaders cohort. Future Leaders is a two-year intensive leadership development programme for senior leaders who aim to become headteachers of schools in challenging contexts within three years.

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