Leadership - Vision or vacuum - it's up to you

A school needs a clear sense of direction in order to maximise its impact

Tim Brighouse & David Woods

According to the US education expert and author Roland S Barth, "a school without a vision is a vacuum inviting intrusion". As a school leader, the responsibility for creating that vision and preventing the walls being breached falls to you. It is up to you to work through the past and the present in order to predict what is possible in the future; and it is up to you to choose from those possibilities to determine a goal that the whole school can work together to achieve.

As priest and academic Theodore Hesburgh says: "The very essence of leadership is that you have a vision. It's got to be a vision that you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can't blow an uncertain trumpet."

So, how do you go about creating and implementing a vision? Well, for starters, although a leader is the chief architect and key promoter of a school's vision, this vision is not something that should be arrived at in isolation - a school improvement group should play a key supporting role.

This group should comprise a cross section of staff at all levels, including school governors. It may also seek the views of students and parents. Everyone in the group should have one thing in common: they will be "energy creators" not "energy consumers"; they will be "what if" seekers after silver linings, who ask "how we could", rather than tired cynics, who see clouds, regard everything as half empty and say "why we can't".

The job of this group and of the leader is to gather evidence as to how the school is performing and how it has performed in the past. It should consider the present state of the school in its entirety, from the staff, students and buildings to current and proposed legislation and stipulations from government. It should be informed, too, by staff meetings and development days.

The aim of this research is to predict accurately how the school will look in five years' time. It is imperative that this prediction is based on sound evidence as there is no way of pinpointing improvements to be made if you don't know what base you are working from. As the academics and authors Jerome Freiberg and Carl Rogers explain, what is being sought through this process is "the unseen" - the hidden potential and the future you have to create to ensure progression.

Ultimately, it is the leader's job to make the call and solidify and extrapolate that research into a vision statement. This statement has to be frequently referred to and communicated. It also has to be stable, so that the goalposts remain relatively identifiable and all can work to the same aim.

This is not to say that vision statements cannot be changed. A good one should be regularly revisited and updated to ensure continuous improvement in all aspects of school life. Usually, the fruitful areas for change lie in adapting and making the best use of e-learning technologies, but it is also useful to encompass changes locally and globally, as well as major events. For example, schools around the world made full use of last year's Olympics and its lexicon by calling for individuals to aim for their "personal bests" across all aspects of their schoolwork. Now that the Games are over, many schools have "2020 vision statements".

This last point hints at the importance of communicating the school vision in easy to understand and imaginative ways. Some leaders use video to get their point across, others diagrams. However it is done, a school is a place where stories have a huge impact. Good leaders are engaging storytellers and, if a school is to progress, every person within it needs to know what the vision is and how they can support it.

In that sense, it is fitting that it is from a story - the story of Noah's ark - that the key rules around vision and school leadership can be drawn. The same lessons apply:

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Tim Brighouse & David Woods

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