Great School Leadership 3: Strategy

Strategy: Plotting out the steps to success.
Strategy: Plotting out the steps to success.

Once you’ve set out a vision for how you want your school or department to develop, you need to work out a way to get there.  Vision and strategy are obviously inter-connected; sometimes people are inhibited from thinking too far ahead or from being too ambitious because they can’t see how the change process could work.

There is also the problem of dealing with accountability pressure.  I know some leaders who feel perpetually constrained by the need to do only what they think is expected for OfSTED or to secure  better outcomes determined by RAISEOnline.  Working out how to improve a school depends massively on which indicators of success you will use and whose view of the school matters the most.

Ideally, you will seek to satisfy OfSTED in the process of reaching the ambitious goals you would set for yourself anyway.  That way, you call the shots.  In any case, it’s supremely important, when raging against the impositions of external powers, to think through what you’d rather do instead.  A pet gripe of mine is when leaders moan about imposed curriculum or assessment changes but can’t articulate what their curriculum or assessment system would be like if it was just down to them.

This post is intended to be a generic view of strategic thinking but there are obviously some perennial issues most schools have to tackle at some point:

  • Creating a stronger culture of learning
  • Engaging hard-to-reach parents
  • Improving attendance
  • Improving behaviour
  • Eliminating mediocre teaching
  • Securing a significant uplift in literacy levels
  • Managing the school on a reduced budget
  • Improving examination outcomes and transition success

You’d imagine that since these issues are so common, we’d have it all sussed by now.  But each of us has a unique context, with a unique blend of cultures, competences, capacities and capabilities ourselves and among our staff, students and parents: there are no magic formulas. When the panel asks at interview “so, how do you engage those hard-to-reach parents?”, they’re not trying to catch you out; they probably haven’t got a clue and they’re hoping you have.

Let’s not pretend that these nuts are easy to crack. But there are approaches to finding the right strategies that work. Here are some issues to consider:

Examining the chain of effects:

A new whole-school strategy is a big investment of time, goodwill and resources.  If you’re going to make everyone do something new, you need to have good reason.  You might not be sure of the precise cause and effect in a particular strategy but it helps to trace this through. For example, how does a data-led initiative raise achievement?  What exactly is it about giving students sub-leveled GCSE targets Ba, Bb, Bc, and so on, that will make them better at Maths or Science?  Or, how will introducing a prescribed tariff of consequences improve behaviour? What is the mechanism?  How exactly will introducing reward points improve attitudes to learning.. if most students had a good attitude already? What is it about vertical tutor groups that will make the school better than it is?

By walking through the minutiae of these ideas, you can chuck out bad ideas and work out a rationale to give students, staff and parents. To borrow from Zoe Elder, we are doing X SO THAT Y will happen…there is a logical reason for each step.

Aiming deep or staying surface

It may well be that you need a quick fix, morale-boosting, OfSTED-satisfying, esteem-building results hike- now! That means intensive Y11 interventions and all kinds of short-term exam preparation. The extensive system gaming that now goes on is a consequence of the fact that leaders will do what they feel they have to do, even if their hearts aren’t in it.  But let’s not confuse this with deep level, fundamental improvement in learning.

If all your energies and resources go into Year 11, what’s happening to the deep level strategy?  Is it worth thinking about putting the deeper level work first and perhaps, therefore, doing less intervention, in order to reach a bolder vision for the school in the future?  Sure, a clip-on tie creates the illusion of smartness and removes some daily hassle; but do you want that to be an analogy for your students’ learning? Is there a middle ground?

Examining Evidence

Increasingly teachers and Heads are talking about research and evidence. It’s a complex area and there are no right answers to many questions.  However, there are good reasons to adopt a research-engaged outlook when planning your improvement strategy.   Most obviously, this approach should make you question what you’re doing and why?

  • Is there any evidence that suggests this strategy will work in a school like ours?
  • Is there any evidence that this strategy doesn’t always work?
  • What kind of evidence would satisfy us that this strategy is worth pursuing or should be dropped?

Blind faith in your hunches isn’t acceptable…you might get away with it once or twice but it doesn’t make for good strategic thinking.  And simply reeling off the Hattie effect sizes as if they represent immutable truths doesn’t wash either.

Running a pilot

Before rushing into something, it is worth seeing what happens on a small-scale.  We’ve done that recently with an online behaviour and homework monitoring system.  We tried with one Year 8 class, then the whole year group, then two year groups and finally the whole school.  Each time we stepped it up, we made adjustments and learned from the smaller scale pilots.

Timescales can be an issue however.  We introduced an intensive MFL curriculum with four hours in one language per week and early GCSE entry in Year 9.  Now in the sixth year, we’re still evaluating it.  It can be a long haul and that requires some commitment.

Growing your own or getting a transplant?

The strategy you’ve heard about, read about or used to use in your old school might have worked superbly.  But that doesn’t mean it can transfer smoothly to your new school.  However, it might work well to present these borrowed ideas as one of many options for an in-house group or the SLT to consider, to adopt or adapt. Some good core ideas can then take shape organically in a new setting.  This could apply to an achievement issue, behaviour model or a curriculum design.  Borrow the seed but grow your own.

Big Bangs

Sometimes major changes need to happen all at once:  a new timetable structure with new time allocations for subjects; a new assessment and reporting system; vertical tutor-groups or any large structural change.  The aim here is to trail the ‘big bang’ moment for ages before, involving students, staff and parents and explaining the thinking.  When we introduced our KS3 assessment system, ditching NC levels, we held parents’ meetings, consulted staff and set out a clear time-frame for the change a whole year in advance.  We did the same with a new two-week timetable.  It was a bit of a whimper in the end… which is what we wanted.

Thinking Rainforest, not Plantation.

As I’ve written about at length in this post, I find it pays to adopt a very flexible approach to whole-school strategy.  Not everyone needs the same CPD, the same lesson plan template, the same form of IT in the classroom or the same way of running their curriculum meeting time.  To the greatest degree possible, it helps to allow different forms of learning, leading and teaching to flourish.  Of course, where you need a consistent, uniform approach to behaviour, a bit of plantation thinking might be necessary.  But most of the time, the rainforest works better.  That’s my experience.

Sowing a lot of seeds

One of my (many) faults is that I often have too many things on the go at once.  It means that they don’t all work.  Some things inevitably fall by the wayside, neglected.  However, I do find that it helps to do this in the long run.  You can’t always predict which ideas will take root and which ones won’t.  Our ICT Think Tank idea from last year has been a bit of an uphill push; it needs more work – perhaps a new approach.  But the student-taught IT Project 9 is embedded.  Our KS3 *,1,2,3 assessment system is here to stay.  Some things will wither; I expect that now. Good ideas survive; weaker ones don’t.

Taking stock of opportunity costs

An important factor in developing a new strategy is considering what else you could be doing with the time and money.  Changing an assessment regime or imposing a new system for setting attainment targets will take a lot of energy, commitment and drive. Is it worth it?  Is there value in considering trying to make the systems you’ve already got work better?  Very often, if things go awry, I find we’re saying – we don’t need new systems; we’ve got enough systems but they aren’t being used as well as they should be.

Getting the scale right

This links to opportunity costs.  Sometimes, we are dazzled by the new system; the big Tech Investment; the innovative approach that Outstanding School uses…. or we join a club that promises Exam Bonzanza.  All of this sucks up energy, time, money and goodwill.  You might find that, all along, if you’d just focused on something simple like making students work harder you’d have got more out of it.

Perhaps what is needed is CPD on a particular set of maths concepts that students struggle with and teachers find hard to get across;  a re-working of the timing of the scheme of work to allow more revision or a re-allocation of staffing so that people are playing to their strengths.

As well as considering whether something will work at all, you need to compare it to other contender strategies.  Do you actually need a new strategy at all or could you just do the same stuff better?

Keeping things going: sustainability...

Finally.. initiatives are easy to start but tough to see through.  Part of the strategic thinking needs to be working out how to sustain an idea in the long run.  This requires people with the ‘completer-finisher’ characteristic and a school development planning process that has room for doing the same things again.

Returning to the Vision, the timescale is really important.  For example, we’ve developed our processes around evaluating the quality of teaching and learning in a slow and steady way over four years, so that now I feel we have a robust process that is in keeping with the school’s ethos on staff autonomy and strong self-evaluation. We’ve been slowly transforming our culture around the use of technology… it’s been a gradual change process over five years. We’ve gradually built up relationships with international partners in China and Kenya; difficult at first but now several years on, the bonds are deeper and look set to be sustained.

You can’t reach aspirational goals if you always only focus on the short-term priorities. A leader’s role is look beyond the immediate issues to ensure strategies are in place to secure deeper level change for the long-term.  The next post is all about the people you need to do this and how to get the best from them.


  1. Thinking long-term and strategically is a huge issue in education all the way through the system – if those at the very top could set a good example to everyone else this might help change things – unfortunately short-term, 2 year goals seem to predominate as this is what the system promotes. I’ve always believed that slow but steady wins the day i.e. think of ‘tortoise and hare’ scenarios and decide which one will really achieve the end benefits required.


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