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Future-focused strategic planning for schools: the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ need a ‘how’

Future-focused strategic planning for schools: the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ need a ‘how’

The most important skill in today’s world, individually and as an organisation, is focus. In a world of information overload and one distraction after another, it takes focus to achieve anything valuable. Just like individuals, schools have all sorts of different priorities being brought to their attention day to day, but to truly be effective, they must have a clear sense of direction and purpose. This means they must know:

  • WHAT they want to achieve (their goals)
  • WHY they want to achieve these things (their philosophy, vision and mission), and
  • HOW they will achieve it (their strategic plan).


It’s this third thing that we are focused on today: strategic planning establishes how a school will reach its goals and uphold its vision and values. Without a plan to achieve these things, they remain abstract and unattainable, and it’s unlikely progress will be made. A strategic plan is like a road map that gets you where you are aiming to be.

Why a strategic plan is crucial in any school

A strategic plan is a key guiding document for any school, and can have far-reaching effects. Some of these effects include:

A strategic plan can inspire & unite the whole school community

A strategic plan allows you to inspire your whole community to take action and make change. By making your school’s goals or vision achievable with an actionable plan, rather than completely abstract, you engage people and help them own their role in the process. Your strategic plan can capture the hearts and minds of everyone in your community and allow them to be part of something bigger, providing a purpose and process. It’s powerful to commit to something bigger than yourself, and is a significant predictor of happiness. This inspiration can be a vital ingredient to a thriving school community and can lead to positive outcomes like high teacher retention and student engagement. Even the collaborative process of creating a strategic plan alone can have powerful effects on your school community.

A strategic plan helps people keep focus on the big picture

It’s easy for principals, school administrators, teachers and other members of the school community to lose sight of the big picture in the day-to-day demands that come from all sides, from students and parents right through to governments. A future-focused strategic plan helps to lift vision from the present and keep their focus on the things that truly matter most. In an increasingly busy world, focus is everything, and a strategic plan facilitates this in a school setting.

A strategic plan can help schools keep pace in a changing world

We live in a world of rapid change and all sorts of problems, from rising socio-economic inequality to terrorism, environmental challenges to mental illness and lack of wellbeing across all areas of society. These things affect everyone in our schools, from students to school leaders, but strategic planning as a school can help us harness education as a power to change the world. By nurturing a love of learning, goodness, creativity and ingenuity, we give our students the tools they need to make their way through the many challenges we face. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.

What a school strategic plan should be

It’s clear – strategic planning for schools is absolutely crucial to their futures, on many levels! But what does an effective strategic plan actually look like? What should it include and focus on? What principles should guide the establishment of a strategic plan?

A school strategic plan should always be:

Future-focused

Any strategic plan should be truly focused on the future. This requires intention: when asked what should be in the strategic plan, many people just talk about what they’re already doing. It’s hard to see the future when you’re focused on what you’re currently busy with, but a plan based solely on what you’re already doing will lead to a remake of the same school you already have. Help those involved in strategic planning to be future-focused by sharing resources to inspire them and help them see beyond their current concerns in the lead up to your planning meetings.

Collaborative

Creating a school strategic plan should always be a collaborative process, not something imposed from the top down. Input and buy-in from all stakeholders will not only minimise the chance of blind spots and unlock collective genius, it will ensure that everyone is committed to the plan. Get all members of the community – including students! – involved in considering the possibilities and opportunities the school has, and how you can make the most of them.

Rolled out in stages and reviewed regularly

An effective strategic plan should be concise and actionable, and rolled out in stages so that it’s clear what the focus is at each stage. This might mean a three-year plan, with twelve month action plans in place within that, and ninety day reviews built in. Each of these reviews is an opportunity to celebrate short term wins, recommit to the plan, and of course, to revise the plan. You might even remove some things from the plan, or replace some elements with something new! Don’t be afraid of an agile, dynamic plan that responds to change as it occurs.

Contextual

There’s no one school strategic plan template that will work for every school: your plan needs to be tailored specifically to your legal, historic and cultural circumstances. The only way to succeed is to align your strategy to the unique challenges and opportunities of your school. A school in the inner city will likely have a very different strategic plan to a rural school, and a brand new school will have different considerations from one that has existed for generations. Even within a single school district strategic plans should look different at each school, based on their own unique context.

Consistent

Your school’s strategic plan should be consistent with all other guiding documents and ideals of your school, including any sort of vision, mission statement, values or philosophy. Together, these documents set the vision for your school – the ‘what’ and the ‘why’! Your ‘how’ needs to line up with the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. If you look at these and they aren’t in step with the strategic plan you want to write, it’s probably time to review these documents as well. This can be a big task, but it’s worth doing. These documents are only valuable if they reflect the current vision, mission, values, goals and philosophy. If you’re moving in a direction that’s no longer aligned with your old documents, they can’t help you get to where you want to be.

Practical

All strategic planning schools need to plan for the practical side of things as well as the broader vision. A strategic plan should always take the triple bottom line into account – People, the Planet & Profit (the three Ps). None of these practical concerns should be neglected. Remember, even if your school is the best in the world, it needs to be financially sustainable to keep reaching students. All your other goals and plans rely on the school existing and being able to afford to do its work. No matter what lofty vision you have for the future, financial sustainability should always be a consideration.

Socially responsible

Schools have a corporate social responsibility, and any sample school strategic plan that doesn’t take this into account is lacking. As you approach your planning, keep in mind ways that you can build trust in the community – both within the school community and the broader community – and promote responsibility, respect and accountability. Schools have a role to play in shaping the future of our world, and that’s a big responsibility! Always consider things like sustainability and wellbeing: a holistic view of people and your plans will help foster social responsibility as a school, and among your teachers and students.

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There may not be one strategic plan template for schools that will work in all contexts, but there are some things that any school will benefit from considering as part of their plan. Some of the things that you might specifically address in your strategic plan include:

  • Talent development – empowering and inspiring teachers and students
  • Celebrating diversity – across cultures and generations
  • Global context
  • 21st century skills – the four Cs! Communication, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration
  • Asia literacy, and
  • Student voice and student agency.

An effective, future-focused strategic plan can be instrumental in your school, inspiring and uniting the community, keeping focus on what matters, and preparing teachers and students alike to be change agents in a world of challenges.

If you would like to talk with someone who understands just what you are going through contact Maxine at maxine@thinkstrategic.com.au for a collaborative, creative and constructive conversation about your next steps.

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