13 Sep Great School Leadership 2: Vision
Following from the previous post on Ethos, this is about another essential component of great leadership: Vision.
There has been a sea-change in educational thinking and supporting literature over the last decade or so that has changed our language about running schools. It is now very firmly embedded that, instead of ‘management’, we talk about ‘leadership’. I think this is significant and as schools become more autonomous, the distinction becomes more important.
I’d suggest that the main difference between them is that leaders have to have vision; managers just focus on immediate tasks and priorities. You need to manage effectively, whatever specific role you have in the school. But without vision, you are not likely to be an effective leader. Whatever the current state of your school or department, it’s important to have a sense of purpose; a set of goals to work towards.
There are a number of key functions of a clear vision.
1. It helps to solve problems:
I find it incredibly powerful to use a visioning or ‘future basing’ method (jargon klaxon!!) to see a way through some difficult issues. If you imagine what things might look like with the problem solved, it can help to trace backwards to where you are now to inform the strategic planning. This approach allows you to sweep away all the objections, barriers and doom-mongering. Often it reveals a bold step that just has to be taken; a bullet that has to be bitten!
2. It provides a sense of purpose that helps to catalyse change.
If everyone knows that they are part of mission towards transforming the school or department, that the end point is something worth striving to reach, people will go a long way to support the change process. If the endpoint is fuzzy and uncertain, lacking in ambition or patently unobtainable, it has the opposite effect. What’s the point? The leader’s role is to set out goals that make the tough days worthwhile.
3. It helps to identify and focus on your priorities.
Schools are always doing things. Teachers usually have projects on the go…but all the activity isn’t always focused in a particular direction. Sometimes, the list of issues to tackle is so long, it is simply overwhelming. Where to start? The value of a clear vision, and the process of generating it, is that you can strip out superfluous activities and drill down to the core issues. Will Strategy X make a difference to getting to where we want to be? If the answer is no, it’s a good reason to drop it.
4. It helps to set a workable time frame for change.
I find this immensely useful. Vision suggests ‘in the distance’. It gives you time to get things right, to make mistakes and to build slowly. Vision isn’t about quick wins; it is about embedding the fundamentals of practice, behaviours and ethos over the long-term. For example, creating a research-engaged staff culture, implementing a new online communication system so that it is the default mode; changing student attitudes to homework, or building the profile of a new subject on the curriculum: these things can take three years or more. A vision for the endpoint and a realistic time frame always helps keep your progress in perspective.
Of course, there are other situations where decisive action is required and you need to make a quick change. Again, the Vision can create acceptance for this; if people know why you’re doing something, they will work with you and support the change process.
5. It underpins the day-to-day school ethos.
In celebrating the direction you are heading in, you can reinforce the ethos you’re trying to create. If the learning culture isn’t what you want it to be now, you can still sell a vision for where you’re heading – in dealings with staff, parents and students. In this school we believe in XYZ; that’s the kind of school this is and that is where we are heading. Get on board.
We do this at KEGS. Our Vision document starts off with a summary mission statement that we often quote – see below. I tend to conflate these two things because they are so closely interlinked. The vision statement is constant source of ethos-building material.
6. It helps you to overcome set-backs
Things don’t always go smoothly. Sometimes the cause and effect of educational change is difficult to predict. You may feel that you are on course but then the GCSE results or OfSTED give you an institutional kicking you didn’t think you deserve. A clear vision for the long-term development of the school can help to ride out these blips and bumps on the path. You need to learn from setbacks, to adjust course and refine the strategy if necessary, but the big picture vision can keep everyone focused and motivated regardless.
Vision in Action.
If things aren’t as good as they should be, you need to have a sense of what might be possible.
Example: Behaviour is poor Before you devise elaborate behaviour systems, you need to have a sense of the kind of behaviour culture you want to develop. What will it look and feel like when we’ve got behaviour sorted. How will students act towards each other? What kind of relationships to you want to promote and how will this relate to their learning?
Example: Achievement is low. If you are faced with underachievement in a subject, across the school, or within a subset of students, it’s useful to set out a 3 year plan for turning things around. You might consider: What does it look like in a school like ours when students like ours do achieve at a high level. What conditions are in place? How and why would people be behaving differently? You can’t simply wish or will your way to reaching your vision… but the vision of what might just be possible can help map out the steps and kick things into action.
Example: Recruitment into Y7 or Y12 is precarious. What would be different if our school was the school of choice? How can we change people’s perceptions and match that with the reality of an outstanding school? Again, the process of imagining this shiny future helps you to move towards it. Without a vision for the school where the problem has been solved, there is no hope whatsoever that it will change.
If things are going well, you need to be able to imagine how much further you could go. As I’ve shared before, when working at the British International School in Jakarta, we had a review of our strategic direction, starting from a strong position but looking ahead. The slogan that came out of the discussions was “Excellence is just the beginning”. I loved this over-blown hyperbole. We were always fiercely ambitious for what the school could offer and for what students could achieve and the statement captured that spirit. It wasn’t a statement of the reality; it was a way to share our vision.
If you work in a school that has enjoyed years of success, the vision cannot be to stick with what you’ve got. That’s unlikely to work in the long run. A good leader will work with the school community to shape a vision for what lies beyond. How much further can you go in making learning as deep and wide as possible for all students?
Imagine the disappointment as a parent or teacher if a new Head arrives at your school and announces a kind of ready-made vision. S/He doesn’t ask the students, the staff or the parents what they thought about the school’s direction or the possibilities for change. S/He doesn’t take time to find out what people value about the school as it is. Needless to say, it’s likely to be a rocky road after that. A Head like this has forgotten that this is not their school,not yet. You had plenty to say and plenty of ideas to offer..but no-one was interested. (The same could be said about a new Head of Department arriving to lead you.) This is a scenario I’m all too familiar with.
A strong vision for a school needs to belong to everyone; a lot of people have a stake in a school’s success and, to secure their buy-in, you need to engage them in shaping that vision. Where are we going next? What are the issues we need to set as our priorities? What do we want to keep the same? It’s WE.
At KEGS, we undertook a vision building process after I arrived in 2008 that included staff, students, parents and governors. The resulting document was our vision for the school in 2015. It is on our website.
The document we produced is four A4 pages; it isn’t a long list of platitudes; it is a practical statement of what we wanted the school to look like after six years. Along the way some things have dropped off and other things have been added.. this was pre-election and the range of changes introduced my Michael Gove. However, it has helped to guide us in many ways.
In 2014, we’re going to engage in a new process, building up to 2015 where a new vision statement will be launched. Again, everyone will have their chance to have an input and we’ll be setting our sights high.
In the next post, Strategy, I’ll look at how leaders need to have the ability to put their ideas into practice. Without strategy, a vision is just a pipe-dream. But without vision, a strategy is aimless wishful tinkering; change for change’s sake.