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A culture of trust enhances performance

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership

The following article is adapted from extracts of the Literature review: a culture of trust enhances performance, prepared for the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) by Dr Jessica Harris, Professor Brian Caldwell and Ms Fiona Longmuir. © Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, used with permission.

Creating a safe space within schools is key to developing innovative, creative and collaborative practices that directly enhance student achievements. When a culture of trust has been established, teachers can converse openly and honestly and identify ways in which they can improve, safe in the knowledge that they will be supported by their colleagues.

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) has recently published an environmental scan of research and policy literature, exploring ways in which levels of trust impact on performance in schools. The Literature review: a culture of trust enhances performance draws on a wide body of international research, most particularly on the work of Caldwell and Harris (2008), and of AITSL itself. The current article consists of edited extracts from the report.

The nature of trust

Definitions of trust distinguish different elements and contexts. Bibb & Kourdi (2004, pp. 9–11) describe four types of trust. Self-trust is what people need to be confident of their capabilities and judgments in given situations. Structural trust is placed in institutions, companies, brands or countries. Transactional trust is specific to particular contexts and times. Relational trust is the type of trust a person puts in another person or group of people; it is the form that has received most attention in the school education literature.

Trust may also be seen as a form of capital. In the school context, there is the intellectual capital of knowledge and skills, the social capital of formal and informal partnerships and networks, and the spiritual capital of a strong and coherent moral purpose. Trust is also a form of financial capital, inasmuch as the level of trust in which a school is held may influence the financial resources provided to it by the school community (Caldwell and Harris 2008, p10).

Trust and school improvement

At the heart of the Literature Review is the relationship between trust and school improvement.

One of the most frequently cited studies of the relationship was undertaken by Anthony Bryk and his colleagues in Chicago, reported originally in Bryk and Schneider (2002) and updated in Bryk, Bender Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu and Easton (2010). Indeed, it is the only study cited by Hattie (2012, pp. 70–71) and Hargreaves and Fullan (2012, pp. 90–91). They found a strong association between the level of trust and the extent of improvement.

A modified version of the elements described by Bryk et al. (2010) is used below to describe the relationship between trust and school improvement.

School-community trust

The relationships between schools and the wider school community, including parents, individuals, external agencies and other organisations, form an integral component in schools’ social capital. This form of social capital may be referred to as ‘bridging’ social capital as it draws together parties from different social groups and/or organisations to develop a network. (Putnam 2000)

A high level of engagement with the community is vital for schools, particularly schools in disadvantaged contexts, so that they can offer students a broad range of supports and opportunities.

Teacher-principal trust

School principals and other school leaders play integral roles in developing a culture of trust in schools (Hargreaves, Halász & Pont 2007; Rhodes, Stevens & Hemmings 2011; Walker, Kutsyuruba & Noonan 2011). School leaders who are successful in developing a culture of trust make relationship-building a priority in their leadership. School leaders help establish trust when they make themselves available for school staff and encourage open communication.

Teacher-teacher trust

In schools with a strong culture of trust between educators, levels of vulnerability are lowered, educators feel more assured about engaging in reform and are more likely to engage in collaborative problem-solving. Educators feel more assured about engaging in processes of reform and are more likely to engage in collaborative problem-solving.

Student-teacher trust

High quality relationships between teachers and students offer teachers insights into the attitudes and life-worlds of their students. These relationships also provide students with insights into adult behaviour and can support their enculturation into the normative expectations of the school. Research has indicated that reciprocal trust relationships between students and teachers can increase students’ identification as part of the school community, support student engagement, enhance student wellbeing and raise the bar for all students (Mitchell, Forsyth & Robinson 2008; Van Maele & Van Houtte 2011).

How school leaders build trust

School principals and other school leaders play integral roles in developing a culture of trust in schools, when they inspire and motivate others with their passion for improving educational outcomes, and when they align trust with strategies to move towards a shared vision.

The Australian Charter for the Professional Learning of Teachers and School Leaders stipulates that ‘a high quality professional learning culture will be characterised by… high levels of trust, interaction and inter-dependence’.

School leaders who are successful in developing a culture of trust make relationship-building a priority in their leadership. These relationships may be described as internal social capital, which brings together two different parties to the relationship. School leaders who make themselves available for school staff and encourage open communication help establish the trust on which this internal social capital is based (Brewster & Railsback 2003).

The Australian Professional Standard for Principals (AITSL 2011) describes two capacities that are evident in the work of successful school principals:

  • [They] foster trust and release creativity by developing leadership in others, building teams and working cooperatively to achieve school goals and build the capacity of the future workforce (Developing self and others) (AITSL 2011, p. 9).
  • They are able to build trust across the school community and to create a positive learning atmosphere for students and staff and within the community in which they work (Personal qualities and social and interpersonal skills) (AITSL 2011, p. 7)


This article is intended as an introduction to some of the issues treated in depth in the Literature Review. Importantly, the Literature Review also considers how trust relates to the issue of school governance, exploring the relationship of governance to accountability, and how it manifests in each of the school sectors.

There are two especially noteworthy conclusions in the Literature Review. The first is that trust does not stand alone as a discrete capacity: it is the lifeblood of success in virtually every structure and process that involves the principal and other school leaders. It is for this reason that one-off efforts to create trust are unlikely to succeed. Similarly, a contrived project, even if sustained, may breed distrust. Second, while a headline finding is that the quality of relationships is central to the creation of trust, the extent of that quality is influenced by many factors, including the competence of the leader: trust will be lost very quickly if a leader is perceived to be incompetent. It is therefore important to build strength in and draw on intellectual or professional capital in establishing relational trust.


Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership 2011, Australian professional standard for principals, AITSL, viewed 21 May 2013, http://www. aitsl.edu.au/school-leaders/australian-professional-standard-for-principals/ australian-professional-standard-for-principals.html

Bibb, S & Kourdi, J 2004, Trust matters: for organisational and personal success, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke and New York.

Brewster, C & Railsback, J 2003, ‘Building trusting relationships for school improvement: implications for principals and teachers’, Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, by request series, viewed 1 May 2013, http:// educationnorthwest.org/webfm_send/463

Bryk, AS, Bender Sebring, P, Allensworth, E, Luppescu, S & Easton, JQ 2010, Organizing schools for improvement: lessons from Chicago, Kindle version, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

Bryk, AS & Schneider, BL 2002, Trust in schools: a core resource for improvement, Russell Sage Foundation, New York.

Caldwell, BJ & Harris, J 2008, Why not the Best Schools?, ACER Press, Melbourne, Victoria.

Hargreaves, A & Fullan, M 2012, Professional capital, Routledge, London and New York.

Hargreaves, A, Halász, G & Pont, B 2007, ‘School leadership for systemic improvement in Finland: a case study report for the OECD activity Improving School Leadership, viewed 2 May 2013, http://www.bestlibrary.org/files/schoolleadership-for-systematic-improvement-in-finland.pdf

Hattie, J 2012, Visible learning for teachers, Routledge, London and New York.

Mitchell, RM, Forsyth, PB & Robinson, U 2008, ‘Parent trust, student trust and identification with school, Journal of Research in Education, vol. 18, pp.116–124.

Putnam, RD 2000, Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community, Touchstone, New York.

Rhodes, V, Stevens, D & Hemmings, A 2011, ‘Creating positive culture in a new urban high school’, The High School Journal, Spring, pp. 82–94.

Van Maele, D & Van Houtte, M 2009, ‘Faculty trust and organizational school characteristics: an exploration across secondary schools in Flanders’, Educational Administration Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 4., pp. 556–589.

Walker, K, Kutsyuruba, B & Noonan, B 2011, ‘The fragility of trust in the world of school principals’, Journal of Educational Administration, vol. 49, no. 5, pp. 471–494.


Subject Headings

School culture
Educational planning
School leadership
School principals
Teaching and learning