What does school ‘strategy’ mean from a leadership perspective, and how useful is it as a concept? Richard Bird discusses whether school headteachers and school leaders have a real sense of what school strategies are

One of the more cringe-worthy moments in the Bichard Inquiry occurred during the cross-examination of one of the hapless chief constables. As I recollect, it went like something like this:

‘I suppose intelligence is a crucial element in police work?’

‘Yes, over the last 10 years we have put more emphasis on it.’

‘Oh,’ said counsel for the inquiry, ‘I would have thought it was more like two thousand years because I see on the title page of your handbook a quotation from Sun Tzu’s Art of War.’

Some enthusiastic policeman had been buying books from the business success section of the station’s bookstalls and had thought that it would be good to have a quotation from a fashionable book in his notes. The chief constable was on the back foot from that point on.

But the idea that schools should have strategies falls into exactly the same trap of fashionable ‘management-babble’. I realised that this was not just a harmless trend when I was asked to look at a contract for an academy and found that the head was expected to follow without question any ‘strategic direction’ given by the governors. Because this was a contract, what that meant mattered significantly. But the more I thought about it, the less I understood its intended meaning and the greater the potential for problems seemed. Of course the use of the word ‘strategies’ is everywhere, but does the word help or confuse us?

The term has military origins, so how did it get into the language of people running something so inherently unwarlike as education? One may speculate how it happened. The famous group of managers who descended on Ford of America after the Second World War and created modern management were all ex-military, and naturally they brought their vocabulary with them. When educationalists decided that ‘sitting next to Nellie’ was no longer adequate management training for schools, the most available text books included material from business. Unthinkingly, they adopted the management concepts from those books. The lazy repetition of phrases leads to their full-scale adoption, which eventually results in the nonsensical (and dangerous) provision in the aforementioned contract.

Clear meanings
If we trace the word strategy back to its military source, it has a clear meaning. Strategy is about making essential decisions in a war. Do we attack or defend? If we attack, do we do so by the shortest route? Do we try to get the enemy to split its forces? Do we attack all along the line or do we concentrate at a single point?

Historically, strategy covers decisions such as Hannibal crossing the Alps to attack the Romans in northern Italy rather than waiting for attack in Spain; the discussion as to whether the Second Front against the Axis powers should occur in Italy or France; whether Japan should be attacked one Pacific island at a time or if by-passing them would cause the Japanese to ‘wither on the vine’ instead; and whether the Allies should attack along the line in Normandy or put everything into a single thrust. It is hard to see the obvious relevance of this to a school!

In business it is easier to talk about strategy. Business, after all, is a form of civilised war. So it makes sense to decide where you should take on your competitors: what type of business to focus on, which segment of the market should you exploit, what acquisitions to make; what personnel are needed and how do they need to be trained to take on the challenge? All these angles are easily paralleled with military ideas of attack, essential and expendable territory and what you can attempt with the troops you have. They are the big decisions which a business is free to take. If Sir Alan Sugar wishes to get out of computer hardware into property, he certainly can, but he will consider his strategy carefully!

But when we try to extend the metaphor to mainstream education, it is doubtful whether it can stretch that far. Independent schools, admittedly, can take a view as to the segment of the private education market they wish to compete for. For example, there used to be a whole group of schools which set out to capture parents whose children had failed the common entrance exam but who could not bring themselves to use maintained schools, or those had failed to get into fashionable schools but still needed a school with similar values and social aspects.

Another group of independent schools also made a strategic decision to go for the service market, and set their fees at the level of the grants made by the MOD to service personnel. Independent schools can make decisions as to the curriculum that will attract that segment and the personnel they will need. Similarly, they can consider whether mergers and varying the use of their buildings will make them more financially viable and attractive to their customers. It is reasonable to call these decisions strategic.

Stretching metaphors
But how far does this metaphor, stretched as it is, make sense in a maintained school? A maintained school, broadly speaking, has no opportunity to aim for a particular section of the population. Even when it controls its own admissions, education legislation and the Admissions Code limit its capacity to decide. Even where it has a specialism, there is intense scrutiny to make sure that the specialism has no significant effect on its admissions.

If the school cannot decide to recruit pupils competitively, what about the recruitment and training of staff? There is some scope here, but fundamentally, with terms and conditions laid down in statute and working practices decided by national agreements, it is hard to see that a staff strategy is really a strategy at all. There is some scope to manoeuvre within the curriculum, but not much. (This military metaphor does have an applicable meaning!). The fact is that for maintained schools the truly strategic decisions have been made by someone else.

There is also a possible application of the strategic concept to finance. For example, a school might decide to invest heavily in the repair and updating of its buildings up front even if this means less money for the classroom. Repairs will subsequently be light for a longer period and more money can then be put into the classroom long-term. So a decision to buy a new boiler might therefore be seen as strategic. But it does take a bit of stretching to think of it that way; and the purchase of a boiler does not have the sense of glamour that the use of the word ‘strategic’ arouses.

So what do we so carelessly mean by ‘strategy’ in schools? The vagueness of the word is precisely the problem. It can be used to describe everything from setting and streaming to policies for equality, to the operation of the Special Educational Needs Policy. It may extend to a uniform or the use of exclusion.

The essential problem with the use of this metaphor is that it allows partners in a school to decide the application of its meaning for themselves. So a chair of governors under pressure from parents may decide that exclusion is a strategic matter and that the head should consult governors over his or her use of it. For the head, though, the use of exclusion is essentially tactical (to use another military term) and the decision over the right tactics to use is a decision for a professional who has been trained precisely for these decisions and has the experience to know what will work in given circumstances with a given child.

No room for confusion
It hardly needs saying that this is a recipe for conflict. Once we are discussing real life and real decisions, there is no room for linguistic confusions. The contract I was looking at was simply a provocation to each party to make up its own interpretation, and in the end someone always gets hurt. The head may try to obfuscate a situation so that the governors do not realise that decisions that are being taken, or they may be asked to approve a little at a time in the hopes that governors do not notice what is happening. No one could really recommend such a policy.

Looking at the real world unclouded by this twice-recycled military metaphor, it is clear that a school does need to have a sense of direction, but only at a fairly low level. It does need to clarify where direction is going, even though it may be heavily constrained. (No school, for example, could put as its absolute priority the welfare of children at the expense of its contextual value-added GCSE results).

Some management theorists call this the ‘vision’. Schools may feel it is helpful to call it that; but beware of confusing ‘vision’ with a strap-line like ‘At the heart of the community’ (which is the strap-line of a pub next to Holyhead dock). It may be better to just say ‘What we are here for’. A value statement is also worth having as long as the school avoids the tendency to write out moral sentiments.

A further stage is to determine what each component of the school system, be it a teaching department or a facility, actually contributes to the working of the system and to the purpose of the school. One may call this its ‘mission.’ It is important to see what factors will ensure success for each component and the organisation as a whole. All this adds up to a long term plan, but to call it a ‘strategy’ is to give it breadth it doesn’t deserve.

Taking a reality check
Inflation of language is foolish but the real damage is done when the word strategy is used to define territory and demarcate areas where only certain people can go.

Governors, not only of academies, are encouraged to feel that strategy is their business. In fact, most of the alleged strategic areas are places where professional judgement is needed and should generally prevail.

Instead of saying to governors, ‘You decide the strategic direction of the school’, we should be saying, ‘From each according to his ability’. Governors can then be used, not to set direction (where the choices are so limited as to be virtually meaning less), to give their professional help where they can and act as a reality check on professionals when they stray too far away from the aspirations, needs and possibilities of their catchment area.

Richard Bird is legal consultant to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)