Creating a unique vision

By Carolyn Marino

Gabrielle Wall writes about how the vision of a school or kura has important governance functions, and highlights the intersection between the vision and the strategic intent.

The vision statement of a school or kura is an important, overarching statement that outlines their long-term goals. While vision statements are aspirational in nature, they do have important implications for the governance functions of a school or kura. In particular, I want to highlight the strategic planning cycle, as this is a common time for school leadership to consider their vision and what it means for their strategic direction in the coming years.

I’ve worked extensively with schools throughout Aotearoa on developing their vision and values, strategic planning, and giving effect to their aspirations. Schools and kura undergoing strategic planning for their next three-year planning cycle have a lot to consider. Not only is this an opportunity to plan for improvements in things such as teaching and learning, wellbeing, culture, and opportunities, but they may consider what sets them apart from other schools, and what the current strategic cycle brings that previous ones have not. To do this, we recommend being innovative during the strategic planning process, and utilising available voice and resources.

Forming a realistic vision statement

Having worked with multiple schools on their strategic plans over the last decade, and also being involved in new school openings and mergers, I’ve noticed that vision statements are often not well remembered. That is not only by ākonga and family/whānau, but even by school staff and senior leadership, many of whom can’t quote them when asked. If you’re looking at revitalising your vision in the next strategic planning cycle (or if you’re a new school looking to establish a vision statement), I recommend you consider: What would I tell someone about my school if we were in an elevator together? Think of something short, snappy, and memorable. 

On a similar wavelength, I’ve seen some mission and vision statements that are paragraphs long and make it hard to remember the individual elements, let alone the wording. If the vision is concise, meaningful, and memorable, then it will be much easier to build staff, ākonga, and families/whānau buy-in for that vision. Some schools opt for a combination of three of four words that are easy to market and remember, for example “create, learn, share”. This works well as long as these can be tied to strategic goals, otherwise the school ends up with multiple “to-do” lists.

Vision statements should also be achievable. This means avoiding words such as “perfect” or creating visions that set an unrealistically high expectation, such as one school I came across with the mission statement “Striving for Perfection”. The term excellence is popular but there is a large difference between personal excellence and academic excellence. To strive for academic excellence does not include the achievement of academically diverse, those with learning difficulties, English as a second language, etc. Personal excellence, which is gaining popularity and traction among schools, allows for ākonga to be good at different things. Striving for personal best, or similar is also a popular concept, as this highlights student self-efficacy, rather than comparing them to objectively high academic standards.

Setting goals

Forming goals based on the vision can be a difficult task, especially considering that this may lay out a three-year cycle with associated governance actions. I have noticed that schools sometimes rely on a cookie cutter solution, either by altering and restating their previous goals, or opting for simple goals frequently used by other schools. Both of these are sometimes valid options, particularly if those goals align with what the governance team want to achieve for the school, or if the goals in the last cycle have not been adequately or sustainably achieved.

However, when working with schools on their strategic goals, I generally encourage schools and kura to be innovative and deliberate with their goals. Schools may consider goals in the following areas:

  • Wellbeing, such as new initiatives and programmes, improved transitions, improved attendance, reduced bullying, physical and outdoor education, and wellbeing curriculum inclusions.

  • Culture and identity, including cultural events and celebrations, relationships with community and cultural groups, advancement of Te Ao Māori and Te Reo Māori in the everyday functioning of the school, and cultural awareness and responsiveness of staff.

  • Achievement, not exclusive to academic achievement, but personal achievement, improvements in essential skills, `akonga gaining university entrance, etc.

  • Local curriculum, including Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories, collaboration with local schools, blended and collaborative learning opportunities, developing the Digital Technologies curriculum, and areas that are of interest to ākonga.

  • Community connections, including family/whānau events, hosting local groups, community learning, collaboration with local experts, careers days and other opportunities for the community and school to collaborate.

  • Developing staff through targeted PLD, increased PLD opportunities, collaboration opportunities, and staff wellbeing

We suggest that you purposefully align these goals to the vision, values, and culture of your school or kura, and try to make them personal and unique.

 Staying accountable

Another common issue for schools, particularly when using strategic goals that are repeated each strategic planning cycle, is a lack of action and accountability. This is most noticeable after the strategic plan is set and it is the longest possible time until the next one! Typically, goals should be measurable and attainable, so there should be some kind of measure of success for each. This can be difficult for things such as student wellbeing or bullying, but you should ensure the Board and senior leadership can look at each goal both periodically during the year, and more formally annually.

Being accountable can also include conducting surveys. Staff, ākonga, and families/whānau often have survey fatigue from needing to complete so many, especially when already time-poor, so consider keeping these short and concise. An external facilitator can be a helpful means of gathering and presenting data and helping to craft strategic goals that align with the vision statement and values.

In closing, I’d say that it is rare for me to come across a school vision or mission statement that I don’t find compelling, aspirational and optimistic. In that sense, I’d say it can be hard to go too wrong, and in fact, I often chide schools not to get it perfect, but to get it going! It’s very easy to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and I far prefer to see a school with a non-unique vision, but a vision that I can see, hear and feel in their learning spaces, compared to a fabulous vision statement that hasn’t translated through to practice.