An expectations reality check

Let’s be honest - the culture of schools is quite different to the culture of most of the institutions in our society today:  

Of course, these are all generalisations, but they are generalisations that I have found to be widely applicable from my own observations over several decades.

If the culture of schools in general is different from mainstream society, it should also be recognised that the culture of most independent schools (also known as private schools in some countries) demonstrates some additional contrasts when compared with the general culture of government (or state schools).  For clarity, please note here that I am emphatically NOT generalising that one type of school culture or the other is inherently better, simply that they are different.

It is probably inevitable that parents who are paying money for something they could otherwise get for free will expect something ‘extra’ in return for their sacrifice – some kind of ‘value-added’ factor.  On occasions, these parental expectations may even extend into the territory of expecting something ‘exceptional’.  In that context, a child who is under-performing compared with their parents’ expectations presents a situation (sometimes called a ‘problem’) that requires an explanation.

Time and cultural factors play a significant role here.  Several decades ago when I started my teaching career, a student’s under-performance invariably demanded a robust explanation from the student to the parents.  These days, a robust explanation is still required, but it is more likely to be demanded from the teacher.  At least, this is often the case in Western societies – in Hong Kong and other parts of China where I have worked, it is still student who must do the explaining, sometimes in response to a question like “You got 98% - what happened to the two marks you dropped?”.

Expectations reality check in schools, then and now - cartoon

Expectations vary from family to family, and from school to school.  One of the great benefits of independent schools is that they have the freedom to emphasise the values, aims, culture and mission that define the school’s identity and purpose.   Sometimes the emphasis is academics, sometimes sports, sometimes culture, sometimes faith, and so on.  Most commonly, a school’s culture is a curated balance of these and other factors that form a coherent, holistic philosophy.

When I was working in the US about a decade ago, I often interacted with interim principals.  The role of interim principal is used much more frequently during headship transitions in the US than elsewhere, and there is a large army of highly experienced, often retired former principals who take on these roles, almost invariably for a maximum of one year while the appointment of a new principal is underway.

The role of interim principal tends to be used differently in the US than elsewhere.  In most countries, interim principals operate in a maintenance capacity, just ‘holding the fort’, explicitly avoiding significant decision-making that might be seen as potentially binding the incoming permanent principal in some way.

By contrast in the US, interim principals are usually asked by the board to fix up as many major and long-standing problems as possible before the incoming principal arrives.  This is to minimise the number of unpopular decisions an incoming principal has to face in the early days a new headship, thus preserving political capital and prolonging as far as possible the ‘honeymoon’ period during which the new principal is getting to know the school and its people.

One particular experience I had with an interim principal while in the US provides a good example of managing expectations and tailoring them to the school’s mission, vision and values.  

I remember her telling me that shortly after she arrived at a school to take up the interim principalship, the board asked for her initial impressions.  Her first response was that the school needed to change the way it promoted itself through its messaging and marketing because it was not accurately reflecting the school’s identity and purpose.

She felt that the photos portrayed on the school’s website and social media posts made the school appear more like a holiday camp where students spend most of their time out of the classroom on co-curricular activities, outdoor programs, sports, theatre arts or amusements rather than engaging in academically rigorous lessons.  It was an interesting observation because the board saw all these activities as worthwhile value-adding programs that distinguished it from narrowly academic schools.  Nonetheless, the interim principal argued that these were all activities that the children had access to away from the school.  She argued further that when parents were paying for their children’s education, they really wanted to know that they were getting something that neither they nor local public schools could provide, which was the chance to succeed – to advance - in today’s highly competitive society.

Of course, that begs the question – what does success really mean?  And what is the ultimate purpose of achieving this so-called success?

This is where a school board has a responsibility to define, articulate, guide and monitor the mission, vision and values of the school (and keep interim principals in check!).  As a statement of the school’s enduring purpose, the mission is the “true north” point towards which the school must head with deviation if it is to be true to its identity.  Expectations only make sense when they can be measured against a clear statement of intent on the part of the school’s leadership.

The school board in question did have a clear mission and vision, which was far more holistic and faith-based than the academic rigour being demanded by the interim principal.  However, many parents had chosen the school for its high behavioural standards, its compassionate approach to pastoral care, its strong university acceptances and its strong uniforms policy rather than its faith position, although they were more than happy to tolerate the faith position provided the other standards were not neglected.

In this context, the interim principal’s argument to change the school’s marketing image was largely pragmatic rather than visionary.  She understood the expectations of the school’s parents in the context of its marketplace.  She understood that a school which functions like a holiday camp is unlikely to make a compelling case for fee-paying parents.  At her initiative, the marketing was changed and enrolment applications increased.  However, the increased focus on academic achievement and financial results diluted clarity of the school’s (and the board’s) mission, and this needed to be re-addressed when the new permanent principal took up duties the following year.

Defining and maintaining a school’s mission is hard work, but it is centrally important if a school is to be successful in achieving its outcomes – and meeting the legitimate expectations of its community.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

We support school boards and leaders to manage competing expectations in the school community through our critical friendship and mentoring services.  We can help boards and schools that are facing actual or potential conflict situations through our individually tailored crisis resolution support services.

We help schools and boards develop a clear mission, vision and strategic direction through our strategic thinking support, and through workshops such as OSG-S5 Mission, Vision and Strategic Thinking.  This is also developed in depth in the book "Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

You can assess the effectiveness of school culture implementation (mission, vision and values) through SMART (the Schools Mission Appraisal Reporting Tool), our ground-breaking assessment tool.  To initiate a conversation about SMART, just send an e-mail to Stephen Codrington at [email protected]

You may also be interested in previous articles which are archived at