How real is Your School Vision?

Telescope symbolising vision for school leadership. Leadership Matters.

For the first ten years of my teaching career, five of those as a senior leader, I was firmly of the view that the much discussed school vision was inane management speak and a waste of time. In that time I worked in four schools. I knew what my job was – I taught science and I was good at it. I just didn’t know what the school was for or what it was trying to do. At the time it didn’t bother me. I got on with my job, but I look back now and realise that what was missing was a compelling narrative that encapsulated the raison d’être of the complex human organisations I worked in.
Visions that I did come across seemed to be indisputable (We want to be the best school we can be) or contrived – Inspire, Challenge, Transform simply appeared one day on the letterhead of the school I worked in because we had become a specialist Maths & Computing College and those three words’ initial letters spelled out ICT.

One I saw recently, “An outstanding school where outstanding teaching leads to outstanding learning”, left me feeling sad that the school had simply become a vehicle with which to impress Ofsted. They also seemed to be well known to the Headteacher, but unknown to most others and most definitely meant nothing to the children.

I brought this attitude about school visions with me to my first year of headship, but slowly and surely my mind was changed. In my first term I spoke to all staff, students, governors and as many parents as I could and my conversations had the same opener:

“By the time children leave Carwarden House they should be…” 

We are a secondary school for children and young adults with learning difficulties. Our young people face many challenges in life and I was seeking to ascertain what our collective ambition was for them. It was fascinating.

Staff and governors came up with long lists but which mentioned amongst other things achieving independence, gaining paid employment and maintaining health and happiness.
The students were remarkably consistent; they wanted a flat (not a house, interestingly), a car, a paid job and a boyfriend or girlfriend. Not too much to ask, right?

The parents distilled it down even further – “We want you to do your utmost to help our children live and work independently.” When you consider that only 7% of adults with learning difficulties work, and if they do work, it will probably be part-time and poorly paid you can see why their focus was so sharp.

Taking the lead from the parents with their brevity and clarity I opted for the characteristics we needed to develop and foster in our students by the time they left. Five years later our school vision is:

Ambitious Articulate Caring Confident Determined 
Independent Resilient Respectful Responsible Successful

A vision implies the imagination or dreaming of what could be. If we want our students to succeed against the odds – and believe me, the odds against them in every single facet of their life are poor – we have to have an image in our minds of what we’re aiming for, what we’re trying to achieve. And that must, in my view, reflect their own ambitions for themselves.

A lot of work. 10 words. So what?

I’ll tell you how I know that the school vision is real. Visitors talk about it. The students talk about it. Using that language. No teacher-speak and, crucially, language that employers understand. A visitor commented recently, “You can feel it as you walk round this place. It’s tangible.”

When a first-time visitor to the school says to me, “Your students are so confident and very articulate,” I get that warm, fuzzy feeling in my belly.

Our behaviour policy explicitly uses these words in our rewards system – we award bonus points when our students impress us with their independence or determination, say. So these words are in common usage in our school and the students deliberately use them all the time to describe their progress. My Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme group were rock climbing this week and Thomas shouted to me from the top of his pitch, “Look Mr O’Brien! I’ve been successful!”

How tangible is your school vision? Would a visitor be able to feel it as they took in your school for the first time? Would the vision stand up to the test of what your students get up to when they’re adults? For me, these are the real measures of a successful school vision.

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