Strategic Leadership (Vision, Ethos and Strategy)

Strategic Leadership (Vision, Ethos and Strategy) - Developing your strategic leadership

Today is the launch of the Ethical Leadership Commission's final report (1) and this has got me thinking. Whilst ethical leadership should be a given in education, clearly it isn't in every school or Trust as we see from high profile newspaper stories. The ELC report takes us back to the 3 core functions of governance in the DfE Handbook the first of which is - 'Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction', but how many of us are confident that we have truly done this for our school?(2)  Why does this matter? - well in the 2017 report Who Governs our Schools Tony Breslin states 'effective school governance is a driver of educational change: pushing up levels of achievement, participation and inclusion, defining the vision and values that a school or group of schools holds dear...'(3)  So it is something that can really make a difference if we get into the driving seat and take control! Strategic leadership can seem a daunting task but establishing this top level direction and establishing an ethical culture within our schools can, I believe, deliver dividends in terms of clarity and coherence for governors, staff and children alike.

So how do we go about this vital task? Well the NGA has produced a very useful publication, Being Strategic A guide for governing boards, so this is definitely worth a read.(4) However a governance colleague of mine said recently (to paraphrase) 'there are plenty of boards that know what they should be doing but often don't have practical examples of how to do it.' So, I thought you might find it useful to hear our story - a practical guide to what we did in our school. This was first published in a piece for the NGA magazine in 2018 but I have tweaked and updated it here for this blog post.(5)

Strategic planning has a beginning – but it doesn’t have an end. It is a process, a journey, and it is ongoing. So, like all the best journeys, on the way you will meet some great people from different backgrounds and cultures, you will view many different educational landscapes, hear lots of great ideas, learn a lot and the experience will widen your perspective. So climb aboard, buckle up and come with me as I take you on our journey. Whilst what we have done isn’t perfect, and I am sure there are better plans out there, we are proud of it. I hope that our experience will help those of you who want to start on this journey to take the first steps.

We set off back in 2014 gathering evidence and really getting to know our school and the current education context. We undertook a series of exercises and you will need to set aside time for this as the usual termly board meeting often has enough on the agenda! Some of them you will be familiar with – a discussion based on the NGA ‘20 Questions for the Governing Board’ was first and it was from this that we realised that we hadn’t got a clear strategy!  We completed a SWOT analysis; we used a Post-it note exercise to complete the phrase ‘When a child leaves our school he/she will be….; we spent time considering our values and held many discussions, often led by school leaders, on topics such as ‘the healthy child’; ‘what do we mean by a broad and balanced curriculum’ and ‘our school in a global context?’ (Lots of this links with curriculum intent - see my previous blog post)

Over the period of a year we began to really feel we were getting to grips with what was special and important for our school but did it chime with parents, pupils, staff and the wider community? Consultations through meetings, questionnaires, school council, and board discussions all fed into the mix. Indeed the overarching vision, ‘for everyone, children, staff and governors, to strive to fulfil the children’s ambition to ‘be the best that you can be,’ came from the school council.

At the end of this stage of the journey we had amassed a lot of information and there is no question someone has to organise this! It’s a bit like organising your holiday pics on your return! Grouping things together under broad headings helped, themes and priorities start to emerge and some things have to be discarded through lack of relevance or focus. More board discussion followed and we unpicked what 'being the best you can be' looked like - a more detailed development of the children's vision followed.

Finally a document with eight strategic aims and clearly measurable success criteria was drafted. This is the pathway, the steps by which the vision will be delivered, and it must be measurable because, as with all journeys, you need to know when you have arrived! (The document is on our website - Wrawby St Mary's CE Primary School) The final aim is really our values; we are a church school and for us these underpin everything we do - they are what we mean when we talk about 'ethos'. Ethical Leadership? Yes! right up our street and we have applied to the NGA to take part in the pathfinder project.(6)

This strategic aims document now directs everything that we do. When we set agendas, discuss the budget, look at staff structures, develop policy, set the annual school development plan and meet with the Head for performance management we ensure these activities are focused on delivering our aims. The termly (Strategic) report to the board is now structured under these eight headings and, because of this change, we all feel it is a more coherent document.

As I stated at the beginning of this piece the journey doesn’t really have an end and, last year, we arrived at a review point three years on from the original document. We met to review progress – an active session with flip chart paper for each aim spread round the room and pens to write ideas down. We talked about where we might find hard evidence to support our claims. Finally we talked about their relevance and tweaked them for the next 3 years.

Our vision, values and aims are our guiding lights, they are communicated to pupils, staff, parents and the community, they are displayed in school and they are talked about and referred to constantly. I would urge you, if you haven’t already, to set off on that journey! You will learn much and your influence as leaders of the school will become explicit, empowering, effective - and ethical.

1. Ethical Leadership Commission, Navigating the Educational Moral Maze, (2019)

2. Department for Education, Governance Handbook (2017)

3. Breslin, T., Who Governs our Schools, (2017) RSA 

4. National Governance association, Being Strategic - A guide for governing boards (2018)

5. National Governance Association, Governing Matters, (July/August 2018)

6. National Governance Association,


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