The board's role in thinking strategically

Very few actions that a school board takes will give it more influence in guiding the school’s future and improving the quality of student outcomes than establishing a well-considered strategic vision.

It is therefore surprising that many boards do not really understand what constitutes an effective strategic vision.  A ‘vision’ is not a synonym for the ‘mission’; they are interdependent but quite different.

The ‘mission’ of the school is its enduring purpose – why it was established; the unchanging raison d’être of the school.  On the other hand, the ‘vision’ derives from the mission.  It expresses the ‘big picture’ priorities of the school over the coming few years while achieving the mission in a contemporary context.

In the 1990s, it was voguish for schools to prepare strategic plans, usually following one or another model that was common in the corporate world at the time.  When the currency crises of the early 2000s hit, school leaders realised that strategic plans tended to be too inflexible, and in extreme cases, they even prevented schools from adapting to rapidly changing circumstances and deteriorating financial environments.  Since that period, schools have found that more flexible ‘strategic visions’ have suited their needs better than the older ‘strategic plans’. 

A coherent strategic vision will provide the roadmap for the school’s immediate and medium-term future, and also provide a framework of operations for the school’s management.  Therefore, there is (rightly) considerable pressure for boards to consider their strategic visions very carefully.  Given the critical importance of getting the strategic vision ‘right’, most boards wisely engage the services of an external consultant to inform the process, steer it in the right direction and avoid over-burdening board members and the school’s management with excessive workload. 

When boards begin the process to develop a strategic vision, the starting point must be the mission, as this provides the philosophical, ethical and cultural basis for the school’s identity.  This is followed by a period of wide consultation, seeking the views of the Head, faculty, staff, parents, students and alumni.  Having completed the consultation and having considered the input carefully, the next step is to identify what the board wants the school to look like, and what it would like the school to be, in (say) five to ten years into the future.  Inevitably, there will be a gap between this strategic target and the current state of the school.  The strategic vision must therefore articulate the priorities that will shift the school from its current position to its targeted position.

An effective strategic vision must:

Note that the strategic vision should not address ‘how’ the goals should be achieved, as determining the most effective mechanisms to achieve the goals is a task for the Head and the school’s faculty and staff.  The board’s role is to determine and articulate the strategic vision – setting a direction, thus operating within its sphere of governance without straying into the realm of management.  Having formulated a strategic vision, the board must then articulate it clearly and widely if it is to be effective.

Of course, the board’s role does not cease with the publication of the strategic vision.  The board has an ongoing duty to monitor the implementation of the strategic vision, making changes as required to suit changing circumstances.  A substantial part of every board meeting should be devoted to this task, and in so doing, the board will fulfill its duty actively and effectively to direct the school’s future.

-Dr Stephen Codrington