Sunday 30th January, 2022

Over the last year or so at RMS we have been working to set our Objectives for the five years from September 2022. We are now in the final weeks of consultation before the important practical work starts of how we are going to get there. I have shared an image below of the front page of our Objectives as the draft of it stood earlier this month – we are definitely getting there in our view. However, it’s the process itself that I will write about here, sharing the story of the steps that we have taken, lessons I’ve learnt, and the challenges we’ve faced along the way.

A draft of the front page of our Strategic Objectives from early January 2022.

We have taken time to consult and listen. We originally started this process with staff back during Inset in January 2020, (before the pandemic paused things), having gathered the views of pupils in advance. We looked at examples from both education and the corporate world, and shared feedback with staff about what pupils liked or were less convinced by in our current Values. In small groups, staff then shared their thoughts on what should be in our Mission and Vision statements, and drafted their own versions of these.

We liked looking at Mission and Vision statements from the corporate world as well as schools.
The feedback from pupils that we shared with colleagues back in January 2020.

January 2020 was an important early session insofar as it provided us from the outset with a strong sense of what is valued about RMS, and of where there was consensus among our staff that also chimed with pupils.  We have held similar sessions with pupils, parents, alumnae, and governors, and have also reread feedback from each of the various surveys with these groups over recent years. 

Looking back now, I can see that the sentiments behind direct quotations from pupils that we shared with staff back in January 2020 are very much present in the latest draft.  For example, lines such as:

  • “School makes you want to do well for yourself, regardless of ability”
  • “RMS works each pupil to their own potential, and it caters for everyone’s personalities”
  • “You have opportunities to find your passion”

are there in the first three words of our Mission statement that, “Every pupil thrives”.  Similarly, repeated lines from pupils such as:

  • “You need to highlight our distinctiveness, our difference”
  • “RMS is different.”

are also there in the final words of our Vision, about us being a school that is prepared to think differently about the purpose and nature of education. Until I started typing this post today, I hadn’t realised just how direct that connection was, and I have to confess that I find it pleasing: our Objectives have to belong to everyone and with our pupils always at the heart of it.

The governors have been important from the outset in a variety of ways.  They are “eyes on, hands off” as a Board, but rightly understand that governors must play an important role in establishing the overall direction and development of a school.  One key point that our governors made from the outset was a need for clarity and brevity.  They introduced us (or me, at least) to the concept of a Strategy on a Page (SOAP), requiring that the essence of our strategic objectives can fit on one page including a one-sentence Mission and a one-sentence Vision statement.  The rationale here is that it doesn’t matter how brilliant any school’s vision is, if the key document is 34 pages long (or even 4 pages long) then not everybody can remember it, or articulate it, and so there is a risk of losing clarity of focus.

In November 2020, the governors and SLT held a couple of sessions with an external firm (which were useful in some respects, but that were not adding enough value for us to continue with them), before we established the structure for our SOAP, with a Mission, a Vision, our Values, and then five Pillars that we would be following in order to achieve our Strategic Objectives.  The original template without any words on it looked like this:

It wasn’t a bad template.  You can see from comparison with the latest draft how it’s changed.  Space to highlight the financial infrastructure and marketing have both been removed, rightly in my view.  Each are hugely important areas for any independent school, but their place isn’t the front page of our strategic objectives (and different audiences told us this).  The three focus areas (or Pillars) of Pupils, People, and Place kind of ‘pick themselves’, as it were, but focusing on Partnerships and Planet as two other key areas were selected by the governors and were very good choices for RMS that have met with approval throughout this last year.

After pausing this process to devote energies to managing the first year of the pandemic, things picked up pace again in Spring and Summer 2021. Five working groups of up to ten people were set-up, comprised of governors and staff (both support and teaching, always), with representation on some groups from parents and pupils too. The working groups each produced a draft page for their Pillar, and these drafts were shared with colleagues during Day 1 of Inset in September 2021, before everybody then contributed the following day to offering their thoughts on aspects they liked, were less impressed by, or felt were still missing. This process was incredibly useful. We had always intended the September drafts to be just that – drafts – but colleagues who know the school well were quick to call out ideas that hadn’t landed correctly in their view, and also offered a big bunch of fresh thinking. This was exactly what we wanted. The drafts have improved a lot between September and January, and it’s down to everybody’s input.

Concurrent with this process, one great colleague (non SLT) was working with all pupils and staff evolving our RMS Values from 9 Values (one for each month of school) to 6 Values (one for each half-term).  We have always been a strong, values-led school, since long before I arrived, and values are crucially important in setting the expectations that underpin the day-to-day ethos of RMS.  But reflecting on and evolving our Values has nonetheless been repeatedly requested by pupils and some staff with the key rationale being that the Values for some months got much less focus than others (we have boarders at RMS so break up earlier than some schools at the end of terms), and because it was felt that some of our previous Values needed updating.  For example, we used to have “Tolerance” as a value, which is a great quality in many respects, but that also has connotations of tolerating somebody’s difference rather than celebrating difference.  There were surveys of pupils and staff, and then our Sixth Formers supported by one colleague rewrote our Values to the six you can see below, and these have been in place since September 2021.

The pupils chose to keep two of the original nine (Courage and Perseverance), adapted a couple (Inclusivity rather than Tolerance, and Kindness rather than Compassion), and selected two new Values (Ambition and Integrity).  I love the fact that it was our pupils who led on the new RMS Values.  Truth be told, up to October 2021, my input into the writing of any of this had been minimalI wasn’t a member of any of the five Working Group (though got along to at least one meeting of each).  I didn’t write any of the words shared as drafts in September 2021 (and didn’t agree with all of them, to be honest, though that wasn’t the point).

My role in this process has increased throughout the last term, though again I have chosen to interpret it largely as a curator who carefully selects and organises a collection, in this instance the ideas of our community. I held a series of open sessions on the evolving drafts of our Objectives with 87 current RMS parents, with the Student Council and groups of students, with alumnae, and with staff and governors once more. There is a debate in the minds of some between ‘Leaders have to have the vision’ and ‘It’s not my school’, but I think both of these positions are true, and that setting them against one another is a false dichotomy. I’m not wishing to absolve myself of any responsibility for our Objectives and will stand by them as being right for RMS right now, but they are far better Objectives for being the managed thoughts of a community curated by me rather than simply my best thoughts, or SLT’s thoughts. Across the six slides we have drafted so far, I reckon that fewer than 5% of the words were written by me, and there are a few ideas I’ve put forward last term that haven’t landed with the community so haven’t made the latest draft.

It sounds corny or cheap, but it is simply the truth to say that every one of the sessions I ran last term was incredibly useful. Being honest, I didn’t imagine in advance that they would be, possibly holding some anti-marketing bias in my mind that focus groups aren’t the best way to arrive at a set of Objectives for our School. But I was wrong, and this has been part of my learning with this process. Every person who chose to give their time to feedback was connected with and hugely invested in our school, and all of their thoughts were valid. Yes, some of their opinions were in direct opposition to one another, and of course I can’t please all the people all of the time and will upset some with our final, published Objectives, but the current draft is much improved as a result of those sessions.

I should point out that behind our front page there is also a slide for each Pillar.  Similarly, from the final version of these Objectives we will be devising our strategy to get there, the Department Development Plans, etc.  The front page is intended to capture the essence of who we are and of where we’re wishing to head.  I have shared an example of the latest draft of our Pupil Pillar below:

So we are now very close to being finished with our Strategic Objectives for RMS. And in many respects this is the starting point. I have learnt from previous schools that it is arguably better to have a mediocre idea well implemented and embedded than a great idea done badly. It ain’t what you do…etc. But as we reach the final draft of our Objectives at RMS, I do believe that we have a clear vision that everybody has had their say in devising, and that will provide us with a destination to work towards, giving the community a definite sense of purpose and a focus towards something that is ambitious but also achievable within a workable timeframe. And I’d argue that all of that is what you want from any school’s set of Strategic Objectives.

I haven’t gone into my thoughts about the content of our Objectives in this post. There are lines that excite me, lines that I know the full story behind, and some targets that will be tougher than others for us to achieve. That’s all for another post on another day, possibly after our final set of Strategic Objectives have been published and we’re all busy working towards them.

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