Keep it simple

  • 6th October 2023

Mike Buchanan                                                                             ©Russell Sach

Continually thinking about strategy is critical to your school’s consistent improvement. Leadership consultant Mike Buchanan argues, however, that you shouldn’t complicate your approach

As we have emerged from the immediate demands of the pandemic, many independent schools have been considering their futures in the face of a changed market for independent education, the ravages of unpredictable inflation and heightened threats from possible future changes to taxation and/or their charitable status.

I’ve been working with a number of schools and their leaders to help them think about those futures and to plan for them. Often, people rush to producing a detailed, often complex operational plan using SMART targets and other familiar paraphernalia. This seems to satisfy a need and they often look impressive, yet they often fester unread and unused once launched.

Distilling something simple which becomes a constant touchstone for actions, behaviours and standards is much more challenging and vastly more effective. The process of distilling is an essential element of a simple, effective strategic plan.

Plans have multiple audiences so you should be clear about who they are: staff, parents, children, governors, inspectors, the public. A well written plan can meet the needs of all without compromising the distinctive message and meaning you wish to convey.

Such a plan might have just three elements. Your challenge is to produce something on a single side of A4.

This is your three-minute pitch to prospective parents that encapsulates all that the school is about. It should use the language you use to reinforce these elements with staff and students every day. One of your measures of success is how quickly, loudly and often this language is parroted by others without prompting, and how everyone’s behaviours reflect these key elements. For example:

Learning: every child develops an understanding of themselves and their capabilities, and progresses to a school, university, college
or employment of their choice with the confidence to take on their future.

Performing: every child achieves more than they ever thought possible, inside and outside the classroom, across a wide range of exacting intellectual and other pursuits, whatever their starting point.

Thriving: every child is happy; they are kind, principled, loyal, generous, determined, responsible, compassionate and bold; they relish collaboration, enjoy the intellectual freedom to be creative, the enterprise to act and the resilience to cope with adversity.

Here is where you can be clear about what you are expecting to see and feel in the school. Each of these elements is likely to have more detailed plans for delivery at sub-school level, providing accompanying explanations of what they look like in practice and as measures of success. Your school may have a different number of elements in the ‘How do we do it?’ section, but I’d urge you to minimise these as this will force you to write with clarity and precision – every word must be carefully chosen to convey your specific meaning, and please do ruthlessly expunge all edu-jargon. Using plain English and active verbs will make it more powerful, lead to greater consistency of application, and make it accessible to all of your intended audiences, particularly parents.

Ensuring expert, supportive teaching, assessment and care for every child, and learning that is challenging, inspiring and leads to success.

Prizing individuality, connection and community, apparent in how we behave and include each other.

Providing a curriculum of powerful knowledge that is demanding, meaningful, nourishing and exciting.

Valuing curiosity and perseverance, and aiming to help each child to develop independence of mind and spirit.

Developing children who are eloquent, bold, relish responsibility and learn from taking measured risks.

Ensuring the school is a great place to develop professionally and flourish personally.

Welcoming challenge and change as opportunities for growth; combining high trust and high accountability.

Enabling children to discover their creativity and abilities through exacting, varied physical, artistic, cultural and social activities.

Realising, recognising and rewarding the best from everyone and the best in everyone.

Expecting proactive, optimistic leadership and explicit modelling in every role and continually looking for improvement.

The final element of the three is how you will know when you are being successful and therefore need to re-plan. This is your opportunity to describe the sunny uplands that you are seeking. Your context will provide this. It may be that you are embarking on a significant period of change as you switch from being a predominantly boarding school to one more focused on the local day market, or that you are extending or collapsing your age range. It may be that you are seeking to evolve your already successful offer on the arrival of a new head or as you embark on a bursary campaign. This is where you can describe what success looks like so that your audiences are inspired by the possible and what is to come. It might be quite simple, for example:

Excellence in teaching, learning, assessment and care is our overarching focus; it drives our behaviours. Our prize is to be recognised for this, demonstrably to surpass the attainment for similar pupils in competitor schools, and to be the first choice of parents seeking an independent education in the area.
The indicator of our success is delighted parents and growing demand for places because of the positive experiences of the children and their performance in exams and elsewhere.

The successful delivery of the plan involves four steps:
• Modelling behaviours, attitudes, language, relationships – bringing your values to daily life
• Building understanding of the plan and conviction through story-telling each day
• Building simple tools to enable people, weeding out obsolescence and removing blockages and blockers
• Developing skills, including risk-taking without fear of blame.

So a simple, touchstone plan on a single side of A4, written for multiple audiences in clear, compelling, plain English is the initial challenge. Bringing it to life will require more elaborate delivery plans at all levels in the school but, now, these plans can be created and evaluated against this touchstone strategy, and you can be holding people to account against the behaviours and attitudes encapsulated in your plan. Good luck.

Mike Buchanan is founder of leadership programme and is the former executive director of HMC.

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