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Differences in Schools: a question of ethos?

Caitlin Donnelly

School of Public Policy, University of Ulster

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Sussex at Brighton, September 2-5 1999.


The purpose of this paper is to examine the linkages and relationships between the officially prescribed school ethos and that which emerges from social interaction.

Qualitative data drawn from one Grant-Maintained-Integrated and one Catholic primary school in Northern Ireland show how school ethos, defined as the observed practices of school members, often departs considerably from school ethos defined as those values and beliefs which the school officially supports. On the basis of the data it is argued that much of what we understand of school ethos is superficial and contradictory. With this in mind the paper concludes by presenting a new angle on ethos which, when taken in conjunction with the other perspectives, further enhances our understanding of how schools work.


Ethos is a fashionable but nebulous term often employed by organisational theorists, educationists and theologists to describe the distinctive range of values and beliefs, which define the philosophy or atmosphere of an organisation. In spite of considerable academic debate stressing the centrality of ethos to our understanding of organisational life, however, there have been relatively few conceptualisations or theoretical discussions of it. It is as Strivens (1985) argues a concept which is too important to ignore. Despite the high level of interest in the concept it remains a term which is highly resistant to satisfactory definition and, thus, effective empirical exploration. This generates a number of problems when discussing the issue of school difference, as Breen and Donaldson (1995:4) suggest:

The Church’s concern is that education in a Catholic school has to be driven by explicit, articulated and implemented concepts of a specifically Catholic ethos. There can be no other reason for such a system and yet this foundational concept of ethos is perceived by many to be an area of vagueness, partial articulation and sketchy implementation.... If the gap between the reality of Catholic schools and the rhetoric of ethos continues and widens then not only will the very language of ethos be damned and rejected as the articulations of institutional hypocrisy but the territory of ideals itself will be polluted by the same rhetorical fall out.

The importance of conceptualising and understanding what ethos is lies in what it can reveal about social process, activity and structure. Furthermore, such discussion can also encourage an appreciation of how the observed practices in schools support and foster the official ethos which is promoted in school documents. The purpose of this paper is to explore how the official ethos is supported by the attitudes of teachers, governors and parents in a Catholic and grant-maintained integrated school in Northern Ireland.

The paper is separated into three main parts with a number of sub sections. Part one will examine and analyse some of the existing literature on the concept of ethos. Using these theoretical perspectives as a framework, part two will explore the ethos in each of the school types and demonstrate the extent to which the official ethos, presented in school documentation, is congruent with the observed attitudes of school members. On the basis of the data it is argued that much of what we understand by school ethos is superficial and contradictory. The paper concludes with an attempt at counteracting this situation by offering a new angle on ethos which, when combined with the other perspectives, enhances our understanding of how schools work.

What is Ethos? Views From the Literature

Writings on the concept of ethos tend to fall into two broad camps which can be described as reflective of either positivist or anti-positivist view points. A positivist views ethos as something which prescribes social reality. In this sense it is an objective phenomenon, existing independently of the people and social events in an organisation. An organisation, it is argued posesses an ethos which can be changed or borrowed to make it more successful. From an educational perspective a school’s ethos wields a certain amount of power to condition people to think and act in an ‘acceptable’ manner. Ethos can thus be seen as the expressed wishes of those who command authority within an organisation and it is the means by which individuals within the organisation are committed to what is deemed natural, proper and right (Torrington and Weightman,1989). The antithesis of this approach to ethos is that presented by anti-positivist theorists who see ethos as that which emerges from social interaction and process. This perspective on ethos is reflective of similar perspectives on culture which suggest that an organisation is a culture rather than has one. For example, those who would subscribe to this view point believe that there is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture (Geertz 1975:112-113). In this interpretation an examination of theinteraction of the members of the schools is crucial in order to gain an insight into its cultural properties. The ethos emerges from individual and group interaction and in their interpretation of events. Ethos then is not that which is formally stated or documented but is a process of social interaction; it is not independent from the organisation but inherently bound up within it. It is a product of organisational interaction and will be produced and reproduced over time. Meek (1988:464) in her discussion of culture clearly outlines the interpretivist approach when she perceptively informs us that:

People do not just passively absorb meanings and symbols; they produce and reproduce culture and in the proces of reproducing it they may transform it…. The social emergent approach to culture moves the researcher towards those interests of the organisational community as a whole.

There are parallels with theories of interpretivism like those advanced by Garfinkle, (1968) where it is argued that ethos emerges from social interaction and is part of, not independent of, the organisation and its members. Thus so far in this review it would appear that there is little to differentiate culture from ethos. Both concepts are abstractions which are related to the behaviour of people within a school or other organisation. School ethos however seems to be a more specific term which is located and subsumed within the broader concept of culture. School ethos more specifically refers to formal expressions of school members which reflect the prevailing cultural norms, assumptions and beliefs. For example in their study of school management Derek Torrington and Jane Weightman (1989:18) suggest that whilst the concepts of organisational culture and ethos are very similar there remains an important difference:

Organisational culture is the characteristic spirit and belief of an organisation, demosnstrated for example in the norms and values which are generally held about how people should treat each other …. The ethos of a school, is a more self concious expression of specific types of objective in relation to behaviour and values. This can be in various forms such as a formal statement by the head teacher and in such comments as ‘we don’t do things that way here’.

School ethos then is a more distinct expression concerning the values and behaviour of those within the school

The two definitions present the researcher with some dilemma when attempting to clarify what constitutes the ethos of a school and hence what makes that school unique. The central difficulty is that the official school ethos, as described in school documentation or defined by school authorities, often departs considerably from the ethos which emerges from the intentions, interactions and behaviour of school members. For a school to embrace a truly distinct and uniform ethos the values and beliefs of those in authority must reflect and reinforce those of individual school members (Morris, 1998). Tensions, according to Morris, are often apparent between the values which schools purport to uphold and transmit and those values and beliefs held by individual school members. Such tension may arise in Catholic schools where the Catholic hierarchy’s objective for education is that of total commitment to religious values on the part of teachers and pupils. Yet, in an increasingly secular society, where respect for religious authority has considerably weakened, significant difficulties may arise for teachers and pupils in attaining these objectives.

In commenting on the Rutter research into school effectiveness, Dancy (1979) provides some insightful commentary on the concept of school ethos. He analyses the idea in terms of values, aims, attitudes and procedures suggesting that:

Values order aims, aims inspire attitudes. Attitudes issue in, and are exemplified by, procedures. [A procedure is a pattern of actions, where an attitude is a pattern of felt thoughts]. (Dancy, 1979: 32)

The concept of ethos is often used to explain the differences between school types. In recognition of this, Allder (1993) made a substantial contribution to the literature on school ethos. Drawing on four connecting words of spirit, ambience, atmosphere and climate, ethos was found to be a concept always located in the realms of social interaction. She defined it as the:

...unique pervasive atmosphere or mood of the organisation which is brought about by activities or behaviour, primarily in the realms of social interaction and to a lesser extent in matters to do with the environment, of members of the school and recognised initially on an experiential rather than a cognitive level (Allder, 1993:69)

Hence a school’s ethos emerges from interaction and is experienced by all members of, or visitors to, that school. A similar argument was earlier put forward by Hogan (1984:695) when he suggested that ethos is the ‘natural outcome of what is actually happening within the school’.

Such a definition suggests the need for an in-depth understanding of the experiences and perceptions of school members. In this sense it is difficult to create a ‘good’ ethos to improve a school; rather ethos emerges from the dynamics of social interchange and is reflected and reinforced by the behaviour of individuals and groups within the school.

Yet school ethos is not just about social interaction it can also be defined, according to Hogan (1984), as custodial, whereby the:

...authorities of the school or educational system view themselves largely as custodians of a set of standards which are to be preserved, defended and transmitted through the agency of schools and colleges (Hogan 1984: 695)

Here ethos is regarded as the school aims and goals as set out by the school authorities or the most influential members of the organisation. The direction and tone of Catholic schools for example is articulated by the Catholic Church hierarchy which sets out the purpose and direction that such schools should take. A summary of the Catholic position with respect of education will be explored later.

The focus of this paper is to explore school ethos from the two theoretical perspectives outlined above. The complexity of the concept will be highlighted as a new angle on ethos is advanced. The following brief section will provide an account of the data collection process before going on to analyse and evaluate the data from two primary school case-study sites selected for the study.

Background to the study

Two primary schools, one Catholic, and one Grant-Maintained-Integrated were selected to take part in the study. Grant-Maintained-Integrated schools are planned integrated provide the two main religious groupings with the opportunity of being educated together. from the same town in Northern Ireland were selected as case study sites. Institutions from these sectors were selected because proponents of each school type devote much of their time stressing the unique nature of the schools and the distinctiveness of their ethos.

The qualitative case-study approach adopted was well suited to gauging the values and views of school members concerning their school ethos. In-depth interviewing and participant observation over a period of eight months in each school presented the researcher with the opportunity of probing the nuances of behaviour and subjective experiences of parents, heads, teachers and governors. Justification for the qualitative approach adopted can be found in the opportunities it presented for gaining an insight into the intricacies of social process. The complexity of the concept of ethos and the difficulties which some respondents had in articulating their views on it further affirmed the importance of employing such an approach.

In all, thirty six semi-structured interviews were carried out across the two schools. Two additional interviews were conducted with representatives of the authorities associated with each school type. Each of the school types described here has a central umbrella organisation which looks after their interests. For Catholic maintained schools this is the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), a statutory body established in 1989 with the aim of co-ordinating the management and organisation of Catholic maintained schools in Northern Ireland. The newly formed integrated schools are co-ordinated by a non statutory body known as the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE).

Interviews were complemented by non-participant observation of governing body meetings as well as in-depth analysis of school documentary sources (School Prospectus, School Development Plan and Governors’ Annual Report to Parents). All data were collected in the school years 1995/6/7. Interviews ranged over a series of themes which were mainly concerned to elicit participants’ views of their school ethos and their perceptions of school difference. The following section explores ethos in the two schools from the two perspectives above, highlighting inherent inconsistencies and contradictions.

Ethos in St Elizabeth’s

The following extract from Cardinal Cathal Daly’s homily at the CCMS Conference in 1989 summarises the position of the Catholic Church with regard to St Elizabeth’s system:

St Elizabeth’s aims to create for the school community an atmosphere enlivened by the Gospel values of freedom and charity.... It strives to relate all human culture ultimately to the news of salvation so that the light of faith will illumine the knowledge which the pupils gradually acquire of the world and of life and mankind (CCMS, 1989:10)

This Catholic view of education is not confined to Northern Ireland, but it is a religious vision defended by the Catholic community throughout the world, where education is seen as an integral element of a continuum which also includes the church and the home (Brady 1982). Religious views of life must permeate all learning, something expounded by St Elizabeth’s (1977) a publication issued by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education. It states that:

…Complete education necessarily includes a religious dimension. The task of St Elizabeth’s is fundamentally a synthesis of culture and faith, and a synthesis of faith and life; the first is reached by integrating all the different aspects of human knowledge, through the subjects taught, in light of the Gospel; the second in the growth of the virtues characteristic of the Christian. …. St Elizabeth’s offers conformity with the wishes of the members of the community of the Church (p17)

The image of a school steeped in religious values and ideals, is easily conjured up: an organisation devoted to the pursuance of academic knowledge in the light of faith. The survival of St Elizabeth’s system depends on a shared concept of life and a shared vision of religious principle. Moreover, the effective deliverance of such a system depends on the teachers, governors, parents and pupils who comprise the school environment. Church documentation stresses the importance of the dedication of Catholic teachers who should be imbued with a religious philosophy of life and learning (Brady,1982).

A review of St Elizabeth’s’s documents reiterates the centrality of Catholicism to school life. Aims of the school as identified in the School Prospectus for 1996/97 are presented as follows:

In an atmosphere of openness and trust it is the aim of the school to:

Religion is deemed to be ‘the most motivating and demanding subject for child and teacher’ (School Prospectus, 1996/97). The religious education of children in St Elizabeth’s is accomplished in two main ways: through the religious programme and through the totality of experiences in the school. There is a clearly stated expectation in the School Prospectus that the personal lives of teachers and pupils should be in harmony with the teachings of the Catholic Church to ensure that the religious ethos is upheld.

Given this very clearly defined official ethos which supports the primacy of God and Christianity in the life of the school, it is important to explore how these ideas are supported by the attitudes, values and interactions between individual school members.

The overt emphasis on Catholicism and religion, so evident in school documentation, also emerged as a key element of the school ethos in the interviews with teachers and parents. The following comment from one of the teachers in St Elizabeth’s was typical. Her opinion was of particular interest because she had experience of teaching in the non-Catholic sector and was able to make comparisons between the ethos in the two schools:

It is a Catholic ethos, built into the faith of God Our Father and loving others. It is about respecting others and sharing and respecting God’s will and all those things…. These are not set apart in a Catholic school they are brought into your curriculum areas. I would feel that in the non-Catholic school where I taught before religion was set into a period of the day but in a Catholic school it is different, it permeates the whole day - in the teaching and the discipline.

There was no indication that the outward attachment to religious spirituality and authority in the school had diminished in recent years even though the majority of religious who had taught there had now retired. Only one nun remained on the teaching staff on a part-time basis. The point made by Grace (1995:160), in his discussion of leadership in Catholic schools is of particular relevance:

...although lay Catholics are increasingly taking over school leadership positions such lay principals are the heirs of a tradition of spirituality established by religious orders and it is not uncommon for them to have received their own education and professional formation in institutions provided by such orders.

This was certainly the case in St Elizabeth’s . The head, and a majority of the school governors, had received their formative education both at St Elizabeth’s and the adjoining secondary school, which was affiliated to the same order of nuns. At the time of the investigation the principal had spent her entire teaching career (a period spanning 36 years) in St Elizabeth’s. There is no doubt that her views and opinions were shaped by the institution and she was clearly reluctant for this religious ethos to disappear. One of the governors outlined the pivotal role, which she believed that the head played, in shaping the school ethos:

I think that what you have to look at in St Elizabeth’s is that the principal is very much a xxxxxx girl and in certain ways I am a xxxxxx girl too and in fact most of the governors are too. You could be into a changed situation if the principal retired in the morning and they brought some bright young thing in from London. To completely flip it on its side, someone who came from a very secular tradition and she would be asking questions about our special feast days etc.... whereas you see she is there having came through the system so she doesn’t really question it.

The emphasis on Catholicism was made apparent in a number of ways. On entering the school it was immediately obvious that this was a Catholic establishment. Pictures and statues of Saints and the Virgin Mary adorned the walls and corridors. Similarly, photographs of the recent First Holy Communions and Confirmations were displayed throughout the school to mark the progression of the pupils through two of the major religious milestones of their lives. So the official ethos described in the documentation was supported by both the physical environment of the school and the behaviours of individuals. But further probing and non-participant observation of governing body meetings suggested that the personal beliefs of staff and governors diverged from the official Church view of education. These outward indicators of support were not underpinned by a genuine belief in the religious teachings of the church. A number of teachers and governors commented on the importance of displaying an outward commitment to the teachings of the Catholic Church. The following statement from a governor who also happened to be a former teacher in the school illustrates the point well:

It is important to be seen to be a good practising Catholic. There would definitely be people in our school who would be very afraid of anything going wrong in their personal lives and I think that there is also a big thing that if people (teachers) were thinking about being separated or divorced, their job would be a major consideration ... I think that if someone was in a more liberal relationship, say a gay relationship, then they would not be able to stand up and be squeaky clean ... Everyone who is a Catholic knows what it is like to have double standards, and there are double standards there; definitely a lot of the Catholic staff must appear a lot more Catholic than what one actually is.

Informal conversations and interviews with individual staff members further emphasised the dilemmas confronting some Catholic teachers in this school. Interestingly, group conversations or semi-structured interviews denoted general acceptance of the Church’s teachings but considerably more revealing information was disclosed in the one to one in-depth interviews. Governors, teachers and parents also spoke of the personal conflict, generated by the disparity between their own values and attitudes as compared to those upheld in the school and Church in general. This perhaps is not so surprising when one considers the transformations of Irish social and political life and the influence which this must inevitably have on people’s attitudes. More interesting though is that in the face of continuing secularisation of social life there remains some semblance of a shared Catholic vision within the school. Parents, teachers and governors remain loyal to this school instead of any of the other schools available in Northern Ireland. This suggests a certain attachment to the religious values upheld by Catholic schools and a determination that the Catholic religion is carried through the generations. Links between the ethos described by school members and the official school ethos then are much more profound and complex than at first thought. The shared vision, on which arguments for a separate Catholic school system are predicated, is not perhaps based as much on religious values as the Church documentation would have us believe. The data seems to suggest that in St Elizabeth’s the ethos is founded on a vision of life comprised of a variety of strands of which the outward attachment to religious values is one. Others include a shared political and cultural vision. The links between Irish Nationalism and Catholicism in Northern Ireland are well documented (Akenson, 1973; Buckland, 1979; Farren, 1996; Farren, 1997) and it would be a major oversight not to consider their importance for shaping the ethos of Catholic schools in NI. One of the teachers explains its significance:

Irish culture is a big part of our school. The whole idea of being in touch with our Irish culture and language is prioritised and we try to emphasise it as much as we can. For example, in our teaching of geography and history reference will be made to Ireland. In music too Irish instruments and music have special significance. I suppose what we want to do is instil in our pupils a sense of who they are ... their sense of Irish identity.

The religious ethos, as defined by those in authority within this school, does not have the full and uncritical support of all school members. The overt commitment to the Catholic Church’s teaching is balanced by a latent and tacit acceptance on the part of some teachers that these values are outdated and bear little resemblance to the way that they live their lives. But this had yet to emerge as an issue for debate within the school. At the time of the investigation staff and governors were unwilling to openly challenge the prevailing ethos of the school underlining the importance of conformity, or at least outward conformity, to a set of religious and traditional ideals.

The shared vision of life which is such an important aspect of the ethos of St Elizabeth’s can be contrasted sharply with that of the integrated school where the ethos is described in terms of tolerance and respect for religious and cultural diversity. Different principles guide the emphasis and official ethos of St Elizabeth’s than that of Haywood. The next section will examine how Haywood’s official ethos finds expression within the institution.

Ethos in the integrated school

Formal aims of the integrated school movement can be found in the Statement of Principles Charter set out by the NICIE (Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education). It states that:

Education together in school of pupils drawn in approximately equal numbers from the two major traditions with the aim of providing for them an effective education that gives equal recognition to and promotes equal expression of the two major traditions. The integrated school is essentially Christian in character, democratic and open in procedures and promotes the worth and self-esteem of all individuals within the school community.

The Grant -Maintained-Integrated school sector is a relatively new and to some extent radical phenomenon for Northern Ireland. it is also a school system which has developed outside of the formal educational structures, although since 1989 these planned integrated schools have received financial support from the Government. The impetus for integrated education came largely from groups of parents who were concerned that the segregated school system in Northern Ireland effectively denied their children the opportunity of meeting others from different religious and cultural persuasions. In setting them up the founders of the integrated school movement had three main aims which were defined as follows:

As noted above, the central concern of this paper is to explore how the emergent ethos supports the official ethos of integration. One obvious way which indicates the congruence between the two can be found in the structures of Grant-Maintained-Integrated schools. In Haywood, religious balance was a clear driving force. Examples of this can be found in the admissions criteria for pupils, where it is stated that the proportion of each religion to the other must be at least 60:40. The composition of the boards of governors and the teaching staff reflected this ratio and the parents and staff councils are also constituted with this in mind. The ethos of tolerance and respect for others can be said to be supported in a variety of ways in the school. Pupils’ artwork adorns the school walls where the common theme is the construction of links between different religions and cultures and the search for commonality. Tolerance and respect for the opinions of others is not solely about the cultivation of better relationships between Catholics and Protestants however but importantly also extends to the development of strong relationships between the school and its community, particularly parents. Hence the ethos of integration goes beyond religious harmony to incorporate the integration of other constituencies into the running of the school. A strong relationship is cultivated between parents and the school with the result that parents have developed a sense of ownership and commitment towards the success of the school to an extent quite unlike that observed in St Elizabeth’s. Governors and parents were quick to point up the benefits of this inclusive and democratic ethos remarking on ‘the open and relaxed atmosphere where governors and parents have the capacity to have an input into the decision making process’ (school governor).

It is worth noting however that this ethos also generated a number of problems which, interestingly, contradicted the official ethos. According to the head, integrated education for many parents often represents a choice against the conventional school types as opposed to a choice for integrated schools. This was also highlighted by data from a recent interim report on integrated education, which cites dissatisfaction with existing schools as an important factor influencing parental demand in the integrated sector (Towards a Culture of Tolerance: Integrating Education, November 1998). The problem is that parents often arrive at the school, harbouring negative attitudes about schools and education and the ethos of involvement equips them with a legitimate forum to voice this dissatisfaction. The head teacher referred to this as a significant influence on the emergent ethos of the school:

When a lot of the parents come to an integrated school they might have hang-ups about other schools and so they might have had bad experiences themselves and so they bring that with them. They have a natural sort of antipathy. They do not value the teacher’s opinion, it is the parents opinion that would hold more value.

This antipathy was translated to conflict within the governing body as parents and teaching staff held different and opposing visions for the school. Professionals generally viewed parental influence as excessive, providing little real value for the school. Parents, on the other hand, saw professionals as being only partially committed to the aims and objectives of integrated education and using the school, as one parent stated, as a ‘fast-track to promotion’. Teachers appointed to newly formed integrated schools frequently find themselves in positions of responsibility for which they may have had to wait many years in a conventional school. Some of the parents and governors were concerned that commitment towards career advancement on the part of teachers outweighed their commitment to the goals of integrated education. Parents and governors in this context can be viewed as active ‘representative consumers’ most likely to represent their own interests. Conflict is almost inevitable as parents and teachers search for common ground.

Significantly these difficulties were not unique to this school but were apparent in many of the newly formed integrated schools according to an officer for the NICIE:

I think one of the interesting phenomenon in relation to integrated education has been the involvement of parents. I would suggest that integrated schools were well placed to adapt to changes that were brought about in the early ‘90s.... For the same reason it is a weakness in so far as ... If you talk to the teaching unions they take the view that parent power has run riot as a result of the new relationships in schools. Certainly the Head Teacher Association is of the view that more problems have been created for schools. Parents initiated the school, they are willing to take on the responsibility. It is not to say that they will from time to time take action without advice and then have to pick up the problems which come out of that.

The ethos of parental involvement however only partially accounts for the dissension. Cultural and religious identity are powerful emotive forces Although this is an integrated school the teaching staff and governors had generally been educated in the segregated system. This holds particular significance for the school because individuals have been socialised into the cultural and religious norms associated with either Catholicism or Protestantism through their own school experiences. So if decisions are made by school members which are shaped, even in part, by their identity, then it is likely that agreement in an integrated school will take longer to reach. Unlike St Elizabeth’s, in the integrated school account has to be taken of many different points of view and deeply held convictions about how the school should be run. One of the parents drew attention to this issue when she commented on the problems encountered when decisions had to be made:

It can be difficult some times because we are coming at things with different agendas in mind and sometimes I wonder is it because of our different religions, our different cultural backgrounds. I mean it’s not as if we have all the same ideas about things and we do make sure that we have equal numbers of Protestants and Catholics on our committees. But it is interesting, because a lot of the time discussions are split down the middle, where Catholics are arguing for one thing and Protestants for another ... and to be quite honest sometimes it can become very weary because it takes so long to reach agreement. That is why there are so many resignations. Things never seem to get sorted out and then it ends up that someone resigns because they just get too tired arguing (Parent Governor)

Even in dealing with issues which did not on the surface have any politically or culturally divisive elements, opinions sometimes varied with individuals’ cultural or religious background.

Although the official ethos of the integrated school emphasises tolerance and respect, the incorporation of these values into the running of schools is not a straightforward matter. Democracy and tolerance is advocated as an important element of the integrated ethos in the Statement of Principles Charter. However the ethos which the researcher observed in the interactions between school members did not appear to be invariably characterised by tolerance.

In St Elizabeth’s the ethos emphasises outward conformance to Catholic doctrine. This can be achieved because, as Morris (1998) suggests, there is a certain degree of coherence and distinctiveness in the community that such schools serve. By their very nature however integrated schools are about difference and diversity. The catchment area is not coherent and members are expected to celebrate diversity in identity and culture. There is no emphasis on conformity; rather these schools are borne from a desire to challenge. The difficulty in ensuring members’ complete commitment to the overt goals of integrated education is related to the fact that each person is arriving at the school with a different interpretation of what this type of school should be about. These views are shaped by their own experience of schooling (which is generally either Protestant or Catholic) and cannot easily be separated from their cultural identity. Thus, in the initial stages of development at least, there is liable to be conflict as individuals attempt to come to some agreement about how the school should be run.

So far it has been demonstrated that different impressions of what constitutes the school ethos are formed depending on the theoretical perspective adopted. Inspection of school and NICIE documents creates the impression of a school which promotes tolerance and openness, with all individuals pulling together for the benefit of the school. Such an image is constructed when ethos is defined as an objective phenomenon existing independently of the organisation.

Considering ethos from a more subjective stance however reveals organisational members in the throes of negotiating roles and establishing the ground rules and procedures to guide the school. This is a process which is likely to test the tolerance levels of individuals and there is plenty of evidence in the integrated school and from NICIE to show that it did. The dissension between parents and professionals demonstrated that tolerance and respect did not permeate the school in the way that school documents suggested it should. Indeed individuals were engaged in daily battles to protect their own interests and values. Yet, as the integrated school becomes more firmly established it is likely that ‘acceptable and taken for granted’ modes of behaviour and interaction will emerge as they have in St Elizabeth’s and it is possible that a more harmonious atmosphere could develop.

Discussion and Conclusion

This paper has explored school ethos from two theoretical perspectives. Defining it as an independent phenomenon gives some insight into the aims and objectives which the school authorities hold for a particular school. This is an important and significant element of ethos because it alerts us to the formal goals of the school and most importantly informs us of the ideals which the founders of that school sector aspire to. The other perspective, which sees ethos as something located in the realms of social interaction, provides an important insight into the lived reality and outward expression and support of the ethos.

In comparing and contrasting the two schools it would seem that ethos is not a static phenomenon. It is more accurately viewed as a process, which is characterised by inherent contradictions and inconsistencies. The direction which this process assumes depends on the key actors involved, their values and attitudes as well as attendant social and political change. The process of ethos seems to move slowly in St Elizabeth’s, a long established institution, where many of the members have been professionally and personally formed and shaped by the organisation. The newness of the integrated school means that fewer firmly established routines have been fixed and the process of ethos is more disposed to change and modification than that in St Elizabeth’s.

The data show us how the school ethos can constrain people to act in particular ways. Schools work because individuals follow rules and regulations and adapt their behaviour to fit with others, particularly those who hold positions of power or authority (Handy and Aitken, 1986). This, however, is not to imply that people invariably passively accept the status quo; rather school members have the capacity to act off their own initiative and strongly resist the directions of those in authority. So ethos is a negotiated process whereby individuals come to some agreement about what should and should not be prioritised. Reaching this agreement has been shown to be remarkably difficult and herein lies the dilemma of ethos. The data here show that in both case-study schools the ‘aspirational ethos’ set out by school authorities and made apparent in school documents was not only in some cases far removed from the lived reality of ethos but was being undermined and distorted by the actions and attitudes of school members. This can be readily observed in St Elizabeth’s for example, where governors and teachers felt the need to conceal aspects of their personal lives whilst they were in school if these did not fit with the stated school ethos. Catholic Church documentation consistently emphasises the pivotal role which teachers play in the construction and maintenance of the Catholic ethos. Questions are thus raised about the level of teacher commitment towards Catholic doctrine and the extent to which this interferes with the transmission of a truly Catholic ethos. In O’Boyle’s study of two Catholic secondary schools in NI, similarly negative attitudes were found amongst teachers towards the doctrines of the Catholic Church (O’Boyle, 1996).

Within the integrated school the intolerance of parents and professionals towards each other seemed also to contravene aspects of the ethos set out in the school prospectus which reflected the NICIE Statement of Principles. The degree to which each of the schools can lay claim to a specifically religious ethos or an ethos of tolerance and respect is called into question when the genuine attitudes and beliefs of some school members are at odds with the official objectives of the school. This raises the possibility of a third dimension of ethos which is more deeply entrenched and when combined with the others, offers a further insight into the unique features of schools. The three dimensions of ethos are presented in tabular form below.

Table 1

Three Dimensions of Ethos

Description of Ethos

Dimension of Ethos

Manifested in...

Method of research


Aspirational Ethos

Documents/statements from school authorities such as Churches.

Document reviews; semi structured interviews with school authorities.

Ethos of outward attachment

School organisational structures; physical environment of the school; behaviour of individuals.

Document reviews and semi-structured interviews with school members


Ethos of inward attachment

Individuals deep seated thoughts, feelings and perceptions

In-depth interviews and informal conversations with school members and longterm observation of organisational interaction

Neither of the dimensions of ethos described above are more important or more significant for shaping the school than the other; each is of equal value. Each offers a different lens for viewing the operations of the school and through each lens it is possible to construct an image of the variations within and across schools. The aspirational ethos and the ethos of outward attachment can be analysed with relative ease because they are either written down, can be observed in the physical environment of the school or are discussed with candour by interviewees.

The ethos of inward attachment however is more difficult to interpret. It is comprised of the genuine priorities, attitudes and visions which individuals hold in their personal lives and in relation to the aspirational ethos of the school. The data from the two schools in this research show that such inward attachments can be informed and shaped by religious and cultural factors, personality and the contemporary social climate. These inward attachments are of considerable import in the negotiation and reconstruction of school ethos. It has been shown that school members attempt to conceal their true or genuine feelings about the teachings of the Catholic Church, or their ingrained beliefs about the way that the school should operate, yet it is not easy to keep strong, deeply held convictions separate and removed from every day school activity.

To write of schools exhibiting a unique ethos is overly simplistic mainly because the process of ethos is not static and operates on a number of levels. Each level or dimension does not of necessity work in tandem with the other leading to contradictions and inconsistencies. A review of the data demonstrates the different guiding principles in the two school types. In adhering to these principles each institution is clearly moving in a different direction, at a different pace, legitimating different expectations, priorities and behaviours. The value of understanding a school’s ethos lies in the fact that it isolates the factors which are likely to foster school effectiveness. It can also be used to explain why schools react in different ways to policy initiatives.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 14 December 1999