The importance of vision

The trouble with schools is that their vision statement doesn’t always do what it says on the tin.

“You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.”
Alvin Toffler

Whether you’re a teacher, a head of department or you lead a school, It’s all very well having a vision, but it has to find its way into everything your lesson/department/school does.  What follows, is a focus on whole school vision, but all of this can easily be applied to your own personal vision and values, or if you are a head of department, your department’s vision.  

Every element of the school, from its school improvement plan to its teaching and learning in the classroom, from the way it monitors progress to its behaviour policy, everything should be working towards realising the school vision.   It should become a way of life for the school; it’s whole purpose and ethos.  But this is hard to achieve . . .

You’ve been appointed to your first headship and it’s four weeks until you begin.   After the initial excitement, the sleepless nights begin: Will you make an impact?  How will you go about making an impact? Will the staff respect you? Where will you start?   The endless questions that run around your head, can easily lead to you launching the next stage of your career with some creative ideas that look and sound good and have a real visible impact.   As a result of these ‘quick win’ strategies, staff are supportive, parents behind you and students seem to be onboard.   Now what . . .

There’s no harm in doing this, it’s good to make an initial impact.  However, go through the same process a second and third time and you’re in danger of moving a school from one initiative to the next or worse; having multiple initiatives running at the same time, reducing the school’s capacity to do anything really well.  In addition to this, what are the implications for the school, if the initiatives you put in place, all stem from different principles which actually conflict with each other?  A clear vision prevents this from happening.  Here are a few examples of where I’ve seen such conflicts happening in school:

Values or Vision
Some likely positives Some likely Conflicts
We will provide
an inclusive education
for all
A push on differentiation in the
Personalised pathways or
A focus on interventions for ‘borderline’ students. Or setting
classes (not necessarily negative) but then also allocating top
sets to best teachers. 
Prepare our students for
the world of work
Employers involved in
some aspects of the curriculum. Careers talks/conferences.
Project-based activities
Learning focussed solely on knowledge acquisition and preparing for exams.  A curriculum focussed on subjects/topics
that don’t exist in working life.
Prepare our young
people for the 21st
An emphasis on developing a wide range of ICT skills Mobile devices banned from the school. Little to encourage appropriate use of technology Lessons led in a didactic way by
teachers from the front. 
We offer restorative appro-aches to behavioural issues Restorative approaches used to resolve any breakdown of relationships A fixed-term exclusion policy which leads to multiple exclusions each week.  

During the first year of my first Headship, I began to realise that I was falling into the initiative trap I have described above.   We were the first “Building Schools For The Future” school (A short-lived Government-led initiative for funding and building new schools), and I was keen to impress the powers that be.  I personally wanted to make an impact and show everyone how great a Head I could be (The ego wasn’t in check).  I had a vision for the school.  It wasn’t entirely my vision; it had been developed through staff consultation and work with the Governing Body.   The vision was as follows:

Our students will enjoy their journey through our Academy, and in doing so become ready and equipped to face 21st-century challenges and to succeed in an ever-changing environment.

Our stated values which underpinned this vision were as follows:

We believe:

  • In effective communication.
  • That learning should be character building, raises aspirations and above all be enjoyable.
  • In the need for high quality, relevant learning experiences
  • In responsible citizens who have the confidence to make a positive contribution to society, where everybody matters

In hindsight, it’s evident that this was a different world to the standards-driven agenda we have now.  This was before social media and we were all still excited by the prospect of travelling further into our Brave New (21st Century) World.  So let’s not pick it apart too much at the moment.  The vision on its own has high ideals and the beliefs which follow, if worded more clearly, could have made for an exciting, forward thinking school.  Instead, all these grandiose statements stayed firmly in the prospectus, on the website and on a few posters dotted around the school.  In short, like many schools I have visited or worked in, they were written (painstakingly pored over by many during the writing process), celebrated initially and then only occasionally glanced at in passing (mostly by parents reading the prospectus, seldom by staff). 

When you’re up against targets and external pressure to improve rapidly, it’s far too easy to forget the clear vision and principles you had when you first applied for the post.   You might have impressed everyone at interview with your vision.  In theory, it sounded fantastic but when running a school, things begin to look different.   Six months into the job and where is that vision now?

This scenario may sound patronising and rather obvious, but it is an easy trap to fall into and I certainly fell into this trap.  I launched a million initiatives (at least that’s what it must have felt like to staff at the time), in order to ensure the school was seen as successful in the eyes of those that mattered to me at the time.   Sadly, in order of importance this would have been:

  • The Government (The Academies Division at the time)
  • The Interim Executive board
  • The press
  • Parents

Where were the students?  As a Deputy and for most of my career before this, I really did champion the students.   It was easier to do this without the burden of Headship.   Now as a newly appointed Head, students were the last thing on my mind.   I would have been as well writing the following vision statement and beliefs:

We want to attain the highest results possible and have perfect behaviour in our school so that OFSTED and parents are impressed when they visit.

We believe:

  • High attainment in GCSEs and A levels are the be all and end all
  • That there is no excuse for bad behaviour, anything less than perfect will not be tolerated.
  • In excluding students if they don’t behave.
  • That risk-taking is a ridiculous concept.
  • That our education system developed in the 19th century is still totally relevant today.

Have a look at the school you are currently in or work with.  Ignore the eloquent statements of intent dotted around the place and have a close look at its day to day practices.  What do the lessons look like?  Are they learning sessions as the school may like to call them or are they good old bog-standard lessons, just like the ones you had as a child and probably your parents/grandparents too?   How is poor behaviour dealt with?  How many times is OFSTED (or whatever inspection body you have) mentioned? How often are GCSE or A Level outcomes (or equivalent) mentioned?   Are students really being listened to? What follow-up is there to student voice sessions?  The list can go on.  

Try to spot similar conflicts/clashes to those I highlighted in the table earlier on in this lesson.   I guarantee you’ll find some. 

Realising a vision takes time and patience, something governments, local authorities, Federation Boards and some school governors have little of.   People like to see action and results; things being done.   The pressure to appease the masses may be subtle or sometimes in your face, but whatever form this pressure takes it will never go away entirely.   This is the real test of your leadership.   How resolved are you to realising your vision?  What measures are you prepared to put in place to ensure you really are moving towards it and not just putting into place quick fixes that give the impression of forward momentum?   You may be moving forward, but if it’s without direction and without the courage of conviction to stick to your values and principles, will you ever arrive at the place you want to be?   How will you manage to find a balance between quick fixes and staying on course towards that vision?     

The answers to these questions are for you to find in yourself, I can’t express how important it is that you take the time to explore, develop and gain insight to the principles and values that are held dear to you.  By doing this you will gain a clear and (more importantly) authentic vision for your school or your department.  Being in touch with your principles and values will help you make decisions both strategically and on a day to day basis which is in keeping with your vision.   They will become a tool for you to use and the bedrock of your leadership.  

“The very essence of leadership is that you have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” 

Theodore Hesburgh

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