To be school leaders we have to see. We have to have vision. In my time as a head, I’ve had many influences crowd in on my vision – some political (always the easiest to spot), some time-sensitive, some from changes in staff. But when all’s said and done, and when I can find that quiet spot that forces me to look myself in the eye, I can see what I hold dear, and that those personal values are what ultimately guide my vision-making skills.
It’s quite a curious thing to be asked what our vision is when we become heads. Up until that point, we’ll likely never have been asked that question. Look at any advert for a headteacher vacancy, and they’ll always mention something about ‘vision’, along with ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘taking us from one Ofsted grade to another’. But what exactly is vision?
Well, in my experience I’ve come to believe that it actually refers to two things – community vision (and ambition) and your own personal vision. When both are working in harmony, wonderful things can happen.
Time and conversations
Understanding a community and getting to grips with what it wants in terms of vision isn’t as hard as you think – but it does require time and many conversations. If you’re a new head, this will always be time well spent.
The best data can be obtained by asking open-ended questions of coordinated groups – ‘What do you want this school to be known for?’ ‘What do you want your child to look like when they leave?’ ‘What type of learning experience and/or teacher do you want?’
Those questions will provide you with general observations and specific quotes. I once ran an exercise with parents and pupils where we wrote said questions on large sheets of sugar paper, upon which people could then write some thoughts of their own. We could see that certain words were beginning to be repeated, and it soon became clear that the range of characteristics families were looking for included ‘curiosity’, ‘creativity’, ‘communication’ and ‘encouragement’.
When I sat down with individual families and started asking deeper questions, it quickly emerged that the type of learner they wanted was an adaptable one who was well-grounded in our locality, with a healthy, global understanding. Success and wellbeing were largely seen as natural by-products of this healthy perspective, feeding in to the school’s quote that ‘We are all international Londoners and learners.’
The primary filter
Understanding your own vision is another matter. My own embryonic concept of ‘vision’ when I first became a head 11 years ago was similar to the one I hold today, but not as defined or rich. It goes without saying that your understanding of what ‘vision’ is will mature with experience – probably because what you value evolves over time as well.
I give more weight to mental well-being today than in the past, for example. as my understanding of how it impacts on school life (and indeed life generally) has continued to deepen. Maybe this is why fewer people now apply for headships. If you can’t encapsulate what drives you forward as a leader, you’re going to struggle to do that in a larger forum.
What do you do with your vision once you have it? This is the exciting part. A well thought-out vision will become the primary filter for your school, whether that be in relation to your curriculum, assessment, well-being or long-term ambition. What you’ll find is that when one piece of the jigsaw falls into place, others soon start to slot in and complement each other.
The two schools I run both have significantly diverse ethnic groups (with over 40 different languages in each school), so moving to the International Primary Curriculum seemed like a natural fit, as did becoming a UNICEF Rights Respecting School. Both of these programmes encourage parental engagement, which met another element of our community vision. What our vision allowed us to do was identify the types of resources that would help us further our vision, while providing us with a justifiable reason for not adopting another type of strategy, however popular that strategy might be.
‘Tweaking’ the edges
Some readers might recall John Hattie’s seminal 2008 book Visible Learning, which provided a meta-analysis of virtually every major educational study undertaken up to that point. At its core, though, was a simple philosophy – all educational strategies will succeed and have an impact if you use them correctly and stick to them.
You can’t force a strategy onto a school if it doesn’t match that school’s vision. There may be some short-term impact, but in the long-term it will fail. In the late 1990s. schools were questioned if they didn’t follow the National Literacy Strategy. I recall one particular case where a head stuck to her vision, deviating from the NLS in the process. Interestingly, the school’s academic levels didn’t drop, and the school remains as popular today as it ever was.
Developing your school vision is easiest when you’re doing it for the first time. But what do you do when you’ve been in the same school for a long time? Maybe it’s become an outstanding school? How do you ‘re-vision?’
Being rated outstanding requires headteachers to look closely at how they move forward, as the school’s existing vision will clearly be one that’s of the highest calibre. A head in this position doesn’t have to completely review what their vision is, but rather ‘tweak’ the edges. Their responsibility is to build and consolidate the school’s reputation – something that will require as much stamina as it does vision.
Ultimately, seeing clearly and using your vision as your moral filter and the school’s compass is what will help you make those decisions – however difficult – that are in the school’s best interests. For that reason, spending time building your vision will be critical in helping you sleep easy at night.
How long until we get to the future?
Vision is all about timing. There’s a tension between speed and keeping the community on board. If you’re leading a faith school, chances are it’s your personal faith that makes up a good chunk of your core belief, and that this would be reflected in the community’s expectations.
I’d argue that starting from scratch, embedding an agreed vision and seeing it bear fruit should take a total of three years. It takes that long because:
- You have to get the vision right
- You have to get the staff and community on board
- You have to find or create the right resources to support it
All of this is complex, and you’ll have the weight of political change on your shoulders – but once consolidated. explaining a vision and how that vision will be obtained within your learning community becomes much easier. It’s for that reason that you’ll then stand out.
Anthony David is an executive headteacher of two North London schools.