“Most strategic decisions are now characterised by deep uncertainty.”
For international schools, the words of Trudi Lang, senior fellow in management practice at the Said Business School at the University of Oxford, will no doubt ring true after a year like no other.
Constant changes to new government directives, switching between remote, hybrid and in-class teaching, visa changes, quarantine rules, exams being cancelled – or not – and a whole host of others issues to deal with.
It’s no wonder that for many schools grappling with these changes has meant that strategic planning has had to take a back seat.
“Planning too far into the future is still a very frustrating problem as we are still working through staying open safely right now,” says Matt Payne, head of lower school at Nord Anglia International School New York.
Covid: The challenges of strategic planning for school improvement
No doubt others are of a similar mindset. However, for some schools, where a sense of normality is starting to creep back, the time feels right to start thinking again about strategic planning and thinking about the future, as Liz Free, CEO of International School Rheintal in Switzerland, outlines.
“It's at the forefront of all school leaders' minds; when to create a sense of urgency around something other than ‘Covid coping’ and when to ease your foot off the accelerator pedal of school improvement.”
Jennie Devine, set to take on a headship role at the Montessori School Almeria in Spain, has a similar view: “I want to make sure that I can lead the school and the staff to something, not just through something. Having a good understanding of where the school needs to go is vital for that.”
Many others will be thinking the same. However, doing this cannot be seen as a return to business as usual or dusting off old strategy documents – as Dr David Carrington, a lecturer in strategy in the Aston Business School at Aston University, outlines.
“When we talk about business recovery from a crisis situation, we don't we don't talk about it in the sense that you can ever get back to how things were – you can never get back to business as usual,” he says.
“[Instead] when we talk about business recovery from a crisis situation, we talk about it as business anew.”
What’s more, he says that school leaders need to recognise that even if the pandemic is officially "over", its impact will reverberate long into the future.
“This crisis period won’t just stop when the pandemic is over. There will be lots of other aftershocks and knock-on effects that will impact these schools in various ways.”
Thinking about the future
Given this, how can leaders take a strategic approach to school development with any sense of certainty? Well, in some ways they can’t – but that’s nothing to be afraid of.
Lang explains the uncertainty of the past year as a lesson that strategic planning, in any context, needs to recognise that there are always things beyond anyone’s control that can impact a strategy and this should be informing any plans now being made.
“Leaders are in a position now to say, ‘OK, we've been in a crisis, we've made sense of that. Now, what could happen over the next five to 10 years that we need to build into our strategy to enable us to meet our purpose?'”
She elaborates by saying that this involves envisioning future "scenarios" that may impact on a strategy – and being honest about how many issues may impact on a strategy.
“[International schools] are international by nature, of course, which means they're very susceptible to a whole range of global sorts of trends and changes.”
This could be anything from a natural disaster or the long-term impact of climate change, to visa changes or political upheaval, through to one-off events or some other major disruption.
As we start to, hopefully, consider a future beyond the pandemic, with vaccines being rolled out, the above may sound like more doom and gloom, but the reality is that thinking about these sorts of issues brings more control to a world where certainty is in short supply.
“Scenarios help you to understand those things which you have no control over. If you were really certain about the future, you don't have to navigate with scenarios because you've got the data from the past, and you can be pretty sure the future is going to be more of the same," says Lang.
“But, of course, that's just not the case – we just don't know [what lies ahead]. And so, therefore, it is truly deeply uncertain. Therefore, it's about working with a couple of different scenarios to test a strategy and, much more clearly, navigate a way out.”
Time to move on from crisis mode
Of course, though, amid thinking about future issues that may waylay a strategy, there is the need to come up with the actual strategy itself.
At Aiglon College in Switzerland, high in the Alps, this is something that is now firmly on the agenda – and it is a challenge that is being embraced with relish.
“If I was to look at where we go from here, I would say that we're braver, we're more flexible. We're more open to change, more open to innovation. And I think it's exciting,” says head of school Nicola Sparrow.
To harness this vision, the school has set up a dedicated post-Covid group to look at the future to consider how the school can adapt and grow from what it has learned, with teachers, governors and other senior staff all contributing to the meetings.
Sparrow says, though, that the group was not formed solely as a top-down strategic idea but also in part because there was a realisation that the school was becoming too Covid-focused in all its meetings, and this was proving detrimental both to strategic planning and staff wellbeing.
“It was ‘Are we testing the students often enough? ‘We've got a 10-day rolling testing programme for students. Do we need to make that seven days?’ ‘OK, we've got a positive test in this house, are we going to isolate the whole house?’’”
“Almost 75 per cent of meetings were like that and we realised we couldn’t [just] have meetings like that – you can't be all about the day to day and the negative kind of ‘How are we ever going to get to this?’ It's got to be, ‘When we’re out of this, what will it look like?’"
From this, led by Tomas Duckling, director of learning at Aiglon, the Post-Covid group was born, which has given the school the chance to look to the future and consider how it wants things to develop.
“It's more talking about the big things of education in the future. You know, how can we make sure we continue to be this transparent, we continue to communicate in this way,” he says.
“What can we learn from the past year that we can keep? How do we look at the future and have a strategy and it’s not just all about the situation we’re in now?"
As noted, the group currently brings together an array of voices to inform its work, and Sparrow says the plan is for pupils to be included so they can make their voice heard as well.
The collaborative leader
This collaborative approach, where leaders set the direction but bring in input from all involved in the impact of decisions, is something Dr Carrington says is vital.
“Leaders need to set out a vision that people can believe in – some idealised future state of ‘this is what the school is going to look like in the future’ – but the only way that can really work is if there's buy-in,” he says.
“So it's not just about convincing yourself, ‘Yes, this is how I see the future.' It is a lot about how you are able to work with other people within the organisation, to build consensus.”
This is the approach Devine intends to take in her role: “As leaders, we will need to help staff transition to delivering a more deliberate mission and vision,” she says “I hope to help the staff be proactive rather than reactive, so having a good idea of development plans, action plans and strategic goals is key.”
Yet, at the same time, this must also be balanced with leaders acting as the "figurehead" for the organisation, as Elke Edwards, the founder of leadership consultancy Ivy House, explains.
“[Leaders] need to set a tone of possibility… everything has been thrown up in the air, how do we want it to land? In doing this, they may well find leaders emerging from within their teams; people who see this time as an opportunity and are galvanised to be part of the change.”
Many routes to the destination
Managing these two aspects of leadership is always a requirement for those at the top, but Free says it is more important than ever now, given the huge upheaval everyone has been through over the past year or so.
“School leaders need to keep their staff with them. They need to value the work that has been done and the exhausting marathon that we are all still in, whilst also acknowledging the wins along the way and keeping the end line for today's school improvement priority in mind.”
For her, this means taking an approach that puts a hierarchy on what matters so that staff are not overwhelmed with the usual responsibilities on top of the pandemic – but there is clear direction on what must remain part of school improvement.
“We are clear about what we are prioritising and what we are keeping ticking over, as well as what we are willing to let go of,” she says.
For example, the school’s improvement agenda for teaching and learning remains central to its work: “We are focussing on early reading at the moment and this is a non-negotiable development.”
Conversely, other areas that are not mission-critical have been pushed down the roadmap.
“I've had to slow things down, extend deadlines for things like a new website launch and our intranet. We're still working on all of these but at a slightly slower pace – this is OK,” says Free.
The unknown unknowns
Communicating this to staff is important, says Lang, because it helps them to understand the priorities in the organisation – and this is why staff should also be involved in the scenario planning discussions mentioned earlier, so they know why things may change.
“Scenarios are helpful because then staff can go, ‘OK, we understand why we're doing this, because that's how things seem to be unfolding so that makes sense,'” she explains.
“It provides that shared understanding, the common language, that people get why certain things are happening in a certain way.”
What’s more, Dr Carrington adds that having this recognition across an organisation that the future can change and plans need be adaptable is only going to become more of a requirement as the post-pandemic world is likely to be one characterised by more uncertainty, not less.
“We see all sorts of crises happening more frequently and they're happening with greater magnitude […] as we see more and more disruptive technologies, natural disasters, changes in regulations, changes with tariffs between countries, Brexit, financial crashes…”
“These things are things that organisations need to be better prepared for [because] if a school is very focused on one core activity, or revenue stream, or way of teaching, it will always run that risk of something happening again in the future that might render some of those activities ineffective.”
And schools that don’t start thinking in this way could well end up losing out if how they operate around remote learning strategies or hiring policies does not chime with the wider market.
“A lot of their competitors will have made changes to adapt and so it might be that at a later stage a school is out of sync with its competitors,” he adds.
Steering a course
Clearly, there is a lot to consider when plotting a route out of the crisis of the pandemic and into the guarantee of more uncertainty ahead – the ‘unknown unknown’ as it was famously put – which could cause a few sleepless nights perhaps.
But with a clear direction, a recognition that the future is not written, and a balance of leadership and collaboration, it is clear that a course can be steered that keeps an international school pointing in the right direction.
And when you look back over the innovation, adaptability and flexibility that the sector has shown through the pandemic, leaders and staff at all levels should clearly take comfort that dealing with change and keeping everything going is very much in the DNA of what they do.
Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes