School Climate: A different dimension to differential educational achievement?

The relationship between social class – or socio-economic status (SES) if you prefer – and differential educational achievement is well-known at A-level and students are expected to discuss and evaluate a range of possible factors / explanations for this relationship; these are usually grouped, largely for theoretical convenience, into “outside school” and “inside school” factors, each involving a range of material and cultural factors. The latter, for example, conventionally include things like:

  • Type of School (private, grammar, comprehensive…)
  • Teacher Attitudes that involve ideas about labelling and self-fulfilling prophecies
  • Ability grouping – practices such as streaming, setting and banding.
  • Social inclusion / exclusion – for example, physical exclusion / suspension as well as self-exclusion (truancy).
  • Pro-and-anti school subcultures.

Although each of these is arguably significant, they reflect a rather piecemeal approach to explaining educational achievement differences, particularly those of social class.

One way of pulling some – if not necessarily all – of these strands together is through the concept of school climate; this encompasses a range of material and cultural organisational factors focused on “the school” that, proponents argue, foster academic achievement.

In general terms, therefore, the notion of school climate represents an holistic approach to understanding the impact – both positive and negative – the school environment has on the educational performance of pupils.

Although there are a number of ways to define and measure this concept, the following chart gives an overview of the general features of a “positive school climate” as used by the American National School Climate Council (2007) research:

General objective

Measurement perspective

Main dimensions

Climate is the quality and character of school life and experiences that reflects norms, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching, learning and leadership practices, and organizational structures; a sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and learning necessary for a productive, contributing, and satisfying life in a democratic society

Students, staff

Safety: Rules and norms, sense of sense of social and emotional security physical security
Teaching and learning: Support for learning, social and civic learning
Interpersonal relationships: Respect for diversity, social support for adults, social support for students
Institutional environment: School connectedness and engagement, physical surroundings
Staff Leadership
Professional relationships

More-recently, Bear, Yang, Mantz, Pasipanodya and Boyer (2014) used the following dimensions in their American “Delaware School Climate Survey”: Teachers; Parents; Teacher–Home communication and Teacher-Student engagement.

General objective

Measurement perspective

Main dimensions

Delaware School Climate Survey: Students, teachers, and home; assesses student, teacher and staff, and parent and guardian perceptions of school climate, compares and contrasts perspectives Students, teachers, parents Teacher–student relations
Student relations
Respect for diversity
Clarity of expectations
Fairness of rules
School safety
Bullying victimization

While these tables give a flavour of what is generally meant by “school climate” – a range of measurable factors (such as the perceived fairness of school rules) assessed across different dimensions of school life (teachers, parents, students…) – it’s significance to educational researchers is reflected in the claim that the climate in which students and teachers interact is a significant factor in educational achievement.

As Berkowitz et. al’s (2016)* meta-analysis of the research over the past 25 years argues, a school’s climate can have a positive effects on narrowing the achievement gap between:

  • Children of different socio-economic statuses within a school.
  • Schools with different socio-economic intakes.

Although the meta-analysis highlights significant limitations with aggregating research that uses different methodologies and measures of “school climate” (to be outlined in more detail in a later post) it does add a significant “inside school” factor to our understanding of differential achievement, one that suggests how the material and cultural organization of the school can have a determining impact on achievement.

As they argue “Our review clearly demonstrated that school climate matters when it comes to the relationship between SES and academic achievement; most studies provided evidence that a more positive school climate is related to improved academic achievement, beyond the expected level of achievement based on student and school SES backgrounds.”

They conclude that their review indicates “classrooms and schools characterized by positive climates successfully level the playing field for students of lower SES backgrounds and thus have the potential to narrow achievement gaps among students of different SES backgrounds and between students with stronger and weaker academic abilities. By promoting a positive climate, schools could allow greater equality in educational opportunities, decrease socioeconomic inequalities, and enable more social mobility”.

Berkowitz, R; Moore, H, Avi Astor, R and Benbenishty, R (2016) “A Research Synthesis of the Associations Between Socioeconomic Background, Inequality, School Climate, and Academic Achievement”

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