Why a clear school vision empowers staff and students

Tes research reveals that many teachers do not feel their school has a vision for the future – but as these leaders and business experts explain, putting a vision into words can work wonders in more ways than one
14th February 2022, 12:00pm


Why a clear school vision empowers staff and students

Why a clear school vision empowers staff and students

In 1980, Bill Gates announced that his vision for Microsoft was to put “a computer on every desk and in every home”.

More than four decades on, this is still held up in the business world as the gold standard of vision statements, not simply because it came to pass but because of its clarity and clear direction: anyone working for the company knew exactly what its overall aim was.

The need for a clear vision to help drive staff is neatly summarised in an often-cited 2008 piece in the Harvard Business Review by Harvard professors David J Collis and Michael G Rukstad, who used the analogy of a magnet. 

“Think of a major business as a mound of 10,000 ironing filings, each one representing an employee,” they write. 

“If you scoop up that many filings and drop them on to a piece of paper, they’ll be pointing in every direction. It will be a big mess: 10,000 smart people working hard and making what they think are the right decisions for the company, but with the net result of confusion.

“If you pass a magnet over those filings, what happens? They line up. Similarly, a well-understood statement of strategy aligns behaviour within the business. It allows everyone in the organisation to make individual choices that reinforce one another, rendering those 10,000 employees exponentially more effective.”

A vision for school success

For schools, it is easy to see the link - a clear vision that provides a common purpose and guiding principles for staff can help to align everyone to achieve success.

But it seems that for many schools, this sort of vision is sorely lacking. The Tes Wellbeing Report 2022 surveyed more than 4,300 school staff around the globe and found that less than 40 per cent of respondents thought their school had a vision for the future.

For Matt Seddon, secondary principal at Bangkok Patana School in Thailand, this represents a big oversight for those schools because having “vision” in your job is key to not only a sense of purpose but also staff wellbeing. “There’s a tremendous body of research that shows that wellbeing is significantly increased through a positive sense of purpose,” he says.

For example, he cites work by US psychologist Martin Seligman - a leading proponent of the positive psychology movement - showing that “belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than the self” is key to good wellbeing.

Seddon continues; “This can be found in all sorts of places, of course - through faith, community or service. But, undoubtedly, the place where we spend the majority of our week is at work, and so a huge wellbeing boost can be found for educators through a real sense of purpose at school.”

It’s a powerful ideal - but how do you bring this sense of vision to a school and, in turn, to those who work there?

For Seddon, it starts with a vision statement: “I really believe it is important for a school to have an authentic, living vision statement.”

For his school, its vision statement is as follows: “We develop global citizens who shape their world through independence, empathy, creativity and critical thinking.”

He says this statement is used to “define everything the school does” and provides staff, including senior leaders, with a guide “whenever we are faced with significant decisions”.

He says this not only helps to guide those already in the school about what they are aiming to achieve but is also key to help those outside the community understand the school’s ethos.

“Without a vision statement, how can a parent choose a school? How could a potential employee know whether a school that they are applying to is a good fit? How can a community of students, staff and parents know which direction they are meant to be rowing in together?” Seddon asks.

This sentiment is shared by Amanda Wilson, a coach and primary headteacher in South London, who explains that her school holds a “vision day” at the start of each academic year, when they explore issues based around their vision.

Staff will work together in small teams to create displays based on elements of the vision, which are then “put up in our school hall and remain there until the following year”. 

“It’s an opportunity to do something as a whole school and develop a shared understanding of what our vision is all about,” she says.

Focusing on staff and student wellbeing

The link between a vision statement and wellbeing is one that Dr Laura Taylor, who leads the child and adolescent research stream at the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford, makes, too.

“Vision statements can also be a way to support staff wellbeing [because] a great vision...can act as a driving force and set the whole ethos for the school, and it can also serve as a fresh start,” she says.

Indeed, she suggests that having vision statements that link to the wellbeing of staff and pupils can be a good idea because it helps to give a clear focus that this an area that matters to the school. 

However, to do this, Taylor says, it is vital that the vision statement is not just a well-meaning but broad statement without any reference points, but is something that offers a clear sense of structure and a goal - just like Gates’ statement.

“A basic vision statement focused on wellbeing might be ‘This school aims to improve the wellbeing of all pupils’,” she says. 

“While this statement seems quite simple and direct, it is actually quite vague. It presents the questions: what do we mean by wellbeing? How would we improve wellbeing? How would we measure the changes over time?”

Instead, she offers the more specific and effective vision statement: ‘This school aims to improve the wellbeing of all. We define wellbeing as being satisfied with school life, having positive experiences at, and feelings about, school, and students believing that what they do at school gives them some purpose and meaning.’

Offering this link between aim and delivery is key - and when done right, it makes it easier for those in the school community to understand how they can frame decisions through these articulated aims.

This is something Seddon has seen first-hand, such as when students in his school wanted it to cut the use of single-use plastic and utilised the school’s own vision statement to make their case.

“Our students rightly said to us: ‘You are bringing us up to be global citizens, and we are not comfortable with the plastic that is being used here,’” he explains.

‘When vision and initiative elegantly align, you can really experience those electric moments that energise and motivate us all’ 

“They asked us to reconsider in line with our vision - and it was an easy decision for us to do so. This really empowered student voice and community advocacy.”

For him, this is when a vision statement serves a real purpose to bring agency, direction and purpose to a school: “[The vision] can become a moral compass to support a school knowing what to greenlight, and what to pause on.”

He continues: “When vision and initiative elegantly align, you can really experience those electric moments that energise and motivate us all.” 

This is a view that Matt Payne, head of lower school and a Year 1 teacher at Nord Anglia International School, New York, has previously outlined in Tes.

“A good vision statement can act as a compass for senior leadership teams and department heads. It can provide staff and students with an understanding of why certain things are done in a certain way. It can give families an insight into the type of school they will be sending their children to,” he says.

Getting creative

Clearly, then, proponents of a good vision statement believe that it can have a huge impact.

But, as the Tes Wellbeing Report underlined, many teachers do not believe their school has such a vision. So how can you best begin creating one? 

For Elke Edwards, the founder of leadership consultancy Ivy House London, the aim should be to achieve what Seddon and Payne outline above so that a vision statement provides everyone in a school community with purpose. 

“Purpose is about what we do. If a vision works, it should work throughout an organisation, and every single team should have a distinct purpose that aligns to that vision,” she says.

Or, put another way, the vision should “be like the print that runs through a stick of rock” to underpin everything a school wants to deliver: it is the dream, the ambition,” she adds.

If that doesn’t get the creative juices flowing, Edwards suggests school leaders could imagine how they would want their school to be spoken about five years in the future.

“If they were eavesdropping on a group of local parents talking about the school, what would they be wanting them to say? If they could eavesdrop on the governing bodies, the assessors, the pupils, what do they want them to be saying?  

“What do they want to be known for? What one thing is going to make them remarkable?”

A community effort

This reference to families and governors also brings up the question about who else should be involved in creating a vision statement.

Trudi Lang, a senior fellow in management practice at the University of Oxford’s Said Business School, says, ultimately, it should be a collaborative process - but one instigated by school senior leadership teams. 

“Involving stakeholders in a conversation about the vision is a wonderful way for a school community to discuss and align around the future they want to create,” she says.

“It should start with leaders because, ultimately, they are responsible but then you can bring in the wider community, because everyone sits in different places and sees different things that they can offer, and this creates buy-in.”

Seddon agrees that a collaborative process is best. “If a school truly serves its community, then the community should own and be partners in the definition of its vision statement,” he says.

Edwards agrees but counters that there can be pitfalls to being too open in the creation of a vision statement: “It sounds very egalitarian but what you often end up doing is wordsmithing, arguing about whether to use the word ‘fly’ or ‘excel’.”

Wilson notes, though, that thinking carefully about word choice is a key part of the process.

“If you have a vision that’s convoluted or tries to be too clever in the sense that it has lots of words, it runs the risk of alienating some members of the community.”

As such, she says it is important to “give yourself time” for the vision process and accept that it may take a few revisions: “It isn’t something that’s finished after the first draft, it will take a few iterations to get it right.”

Time and effort to do this - from the first draft, through to feedback from the community to emblazing your new vision on websites and marketing material - may sound like yet another hard task on a never-ending to-do list.

Yet, given how many teachers appear to feel that their school lacks any real vision - and the benefits that having a clearly articulated purpose can have - it seems it is an area schools would do well to focus on.

Zofia Niemtus is a content writer at Tes

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