5 steps to produce great school strategy

5 steps to produce great school strategy

4 min read

By Stuart Robinson

School strategy is the piece of work that can be the most puzzling when leading schools. And, is there any wonder it’s becoming increasingly complex?

We live in interesting times.

This statement echoes from generation to generation. Each believes that the ‘interesting times’ they face are unparalleled to any society has previously experienced, yet the reality is that the challenge just looks and smells unique.

For every crisis, revolution, or disruption that we encounter the paradigms we use to guide ourselves through this Middle Earth quest must also evolve. The greatest risk schools face is to rely on experience to predict future outcomes and retain the status quo.

If the past few years have taught us anything, COVID-19 was a game-changer for society. We no longer want to work in offices; we prefer working from home. Students can access Youtube lessons and tutorials and an array of online resources as well – if not better- than their educators. This shift now challenges the delivery of education.

education demands a new school strategy

School strategic plans are usually an anomaly at best. They represent the school’s philosophical perspectives of education but ignore any holistic strategic intent. They simply focus on process and inputs rather than outcomes.

For a commercial business, the basic outcomes are profit, production of widgets, billable hours, or market share and are simple to observe and compare against others. The outcome for schools is their graduates. Their mental/physical/social progress is far from easy to observe and even harder to compare with others.

Because of this, schools become introspective and focus their attention on their systems for a sound education. They fixate on the machinations of the school – spit-polishing the flywheel rather than addressing the final product. Graduates are merely a by-product; forge the right systems and they will succeed.

Joel Backon from Intrepid ED News makes the point,

To avoid unnecessary hand wringing, we need to find reliable measurements of success during the student experience at our schools that lead to improved outputs. What will our students do upon departure/graduation to thrive in the future? What kinds of programs will create the conditions for students to demonstrate expertise and mastery to others? How do we help students promote themselves to those seeking such skills and expertise?

The key is finding reliable measurements of success. The wrong measurement can actually be worse than no measurement. But the problem doesn’t finish with measurement. Interpreting results, turning the data into actionable steps, executing those actions, keeping the right people accountable for their implementation, and reviewing the cycle of ongoing measurement are the primary challenges for all schools.

Inevitably, schools must produce strategy with the graduate as their focus.

how to produce great school strategy

1. define the visionary paddock

The usual strategy process is to generate an assortment of ideas to propel the school forward. It makes sense as stakeholders cherish imparting their ideas with anyone who stands still long enough to listen.

But a true strategy must start from the perspective of defining the paddock – pouring concrete lines around the perimeter of what the school is capable of, and willing to, achieve. Without a framework for defining your strategy it becomes impossible to discern which ideas are worth pursuing and whether your defined position of strength is the correct one.

The concept of defining the paddock is to produce guiding principles for your strategy. Author of Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt terms this as ‘The Guiding Policy’ and likens it to the guardrails along the side of a highway.

Some examples of defining the paddock may be: not pursuing a co-ed opportunity for an all-boys school, or not reducing class sizes, or similar. These definitions start to limit where you will begin to focus your attention and resources and reduce distractions from other possibilities. 

2. define the value proposition

Hopefully, your school exists for a very different reason than XYZ school down the road. At face value you may look, walk, and smell the same, but there should be a compelling reason why parents, and their students, prefer to enrol with you. 

This is your value proposition. Your strength. 

Rumelt states,

The most basic idea of strategy is the application of strength against weakness.

Discovering your strength – your competitive advantage – arises from exploring the value that your school provides that others can’t or won’t. Finding this value is not an insignificant activity.

My organisation, Morningtide Consultancy, can assist further in this process with you and your Board or Council.

3. involve stakeholders

Including stakeholders (parents, teachers, support staff, board members, students, alumni, and significant community representatives) in the process ensures buy-in when it comes time to implement this strategy. This is the obvious advantage when collaborating with interested parties, but the greater benefit comes from sharing knowledge and experiences that exist outside your school walls. 

If the graduate is our focus then we need to understand what they require to possess and become. 

Furthermore, stakeholders should be an integral part of the strategy implementation. This is where real buy-in occurs and challenges people to achieve the results they seek.

4. create a compelling tagline

Not to be confused with the school’s motto or branding slogan, a compelling tagline succinctly states the strategy. It removes ambiguity and acts as reminder of what the point of your strategy is.

An example for a school planning to enter the remote learning space may be, “The world’s students independently learning, online.”

The tagline defines, limits (no buildings required), broadens (the world’s students), and places (online) the purpose of the strategy in a succinct format. It’s compelling to stakeholders because it encapsulates the combined objectives into a simple, memorable phrase.

A compelling tagline focuses stakeholders to a singular point.

5. execute with resources and accountability

The final piece of any strategy puzzle is its execution.

Implementing your strategy is a challenge for any school. It requires everyone to be on the same page, with a similar focus and commitment level, and the ability to set and maintain deadlines. It’s the one area where strategy usually comes unstuck.

Also, adding strategic projects to individuals and their teams requires an addition of time, commitment, and resources. Without accounting for these extraneous imposts, deficiencies in either the current program or strategy workload will compound and cause future issues. It’s an often-overlooked part of the strategy but any change management process requires an injection of resources to drive its success.

Equally neglected is the ability to celebrate achievements. Planning how you might observe when teams accomplish a milestone should be set in the beginning. And, they should be honoured in relation to their significance.

Therefore, the implementation of the strategy demands that its execution is well-considered and not an after-thought to the process. 

Stuart Robinson

Stuart Robinson

Stuart Robinson: MBA, 25+ years in school management. Business degree, AICD graduate. Founder and author sharing expertise in educational leadership, strategy, and financial management.

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