How do I Create a Culture of Awareness? What is Culture?

16 June 2016

This is the first article in a three part series on the development of culture in schools. In this series, Craig D’cruz, National Education Consultant at CompliSpace, explores how schools can create a culture of awareness regarding child sexual abuse, which is increasingly required by legislation. In Part One of this series, Craig will be examining how to define culture and why it is relevant to the work of the Royal Commission. 

The findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) are due to be published in December 2017. The Royal Commission has spoken to 5111 people across Australia who have told their stories of sex abuse committed in institutions. It has accepted another 1544 people who are in a queue for private sessions. Many schools have been identified as being environments for the actions of child sex abusers.

The Royal Commission has identified the following research project questions under the themes of primary prevention and preventing recidivism:

  • How is child sexual abuse within an institutional context best prevented?
  • How do we decrease child vulnerability, prevent potential perpetrators from committing a first offence, prevent re-offending, treat offenders, make organisations more ‘child safe’, close systemic loopholes, and change community attitudes that enable child sexual abuse to occur?
  • What programs and strategies have been found to be effective in preventing child sexual abuse?
  • What is the logic that underpins common preventative strategies (eg protective behaviours)?

Focussing on the first and second dot points, it can be argued that school culture and, more importantly, a school culture of awareness, is probably one of the greatest tools that can be used to ensure that schools become more child safe and can therefore reduce the potential for further child sexual abuse to occur. State and Territory Governments are already stepping in with sweeping changes to legislation, for example the introduction of the Victorian Child Safe Standards, but no changes will be completely effective if a school has not or does not develop a culture of awareness with regard to child safety and protection.

What is a culture of awareness?

There are various ways to define culture. According to Quappe and Cantatore in their article What is Cultural Awareness, anyway? How do I build it?, cultural awareness is defined as the foundation of communication and it involves the ability to stand back from ourselves and become aware of our cultural values, beliefs and perceptions. In other words, we need to ask ourselves why do we do things in that way? How do we see the world?  And, why do we react in this particular way?

Dr. Kent D. Peterson from the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, defines school culture as "the set of norms, values and beliefs, rituals and ceremonies, symbols and stories that make up the 'persona' of the school."

The Glossary of Education Reform notes:

“The term school culture generally refers to the beliefs, perceptions, relationships, attitudes, and written and unwritten rules that shape and influence every aspect of how a school functions, but the term also encompasses more concrete issues such as the physical and emotional safety of students, the orderliness of classrooms and public spaces, or the degree to which a school embraces and celebrates racial, ethnic, linguistic, or cultural diversity. Like the larger social culture, a school culture results from both conscious and unconscious perspectives, values, interactions, and practices, and it is heavily shaped by a school’s particular institutional history. Students, parents, teachers, administrators, and other staff members all contribute to their school’s culture, as do other influences such as the community in which the school is located, the policies that govern how it operates, or the principles upon which the school was founded.”

Why is culture important?

Culture is often described by students, parents and teachers as intangible, but it’s essential.

As a visitor or a prospective parent, you can walk into a school and know immediately whether you want to be there or not. The same thing goes for the students and the staff. Therefore, becoming aware of the cultural dynamics in a school can be a difficult task because culture is generally not conscious to the members of the school community. People learn to see and do things at an unconscious level and our experiences, values and cultural background lead us to see and do things in a certain way. Schools have to step outside of their cultural boundaries and look inwards in order to realise the impact that their culture has on the behaviour of their students and staff.

When a school's culture is not positive, certain behaviours can be tolerated which ultimately harm the school and the members of the school community.  Such behaviours can have financial and reputational consequences for the school as well as causing harm to students.  For examples of conduct related to poor culture generally (not just on child safety), see:

These examples demonstrate that culture touches on all aspects of a school's environment and relationships.  Having a culture of child safety will ensure that students have the best chance of being protected from bullying, homophobia and child abuse.

In the next article, Craig will examine the actions a school leadership team can take to develop a culture of awareness.

Craig D’cruz

With 37 years of educational experience, Craig D’cruz is the National Education Lead at CompliSpace. Craig provides direction on education matters including new products, program/module content and training. Previously Craig held the roles of Industrial Officer at the Association of Independent Schools of WA, he was the Principal of a K-12 non-government school, Deputy Principal of a systemic non-government school and he has had teaching and leadership experience in both the independent and Catholic school sectors. Craig currently sits on the board of a large non-government school and is a regular presenter on behalf of CompliSpace and other educational bodies on issues relating to school governance, school culture and leadership.