Making Missions Statements Meaningful

3 Jan

The principal, overarching function of a school governing body is to set a strategy for the school to develop and grow.  Governors do this in myriad ways, many of them right and some less so.   Occasionally, governors decide to go on an away-day once annually or biennially to review how they (and the school) have been doing and set the objectives and strategy for the future.   Others decide to do this with less frequency – i.e. once every three or four years.

A few governing bodies leave the construction of the strategy to their headteachers – who, in conjunction with their staff members – especially the members of the senior management teams – review the school’s strengths and weaknesses, audit the opportunities and threats in their environments and pull together the objectives and the School Development Plans (SDPs) for the following year, two years or three.  These SDPs are then presented to their governing bodies for comment.  Given the constraints of time at meetings, more often than not, they are rubber-stamped and approved with little or no comment.

This last method is a less effective way of enabling governors to discharge this primary function.  It causes them to become semi-detached to the schools they govern.   The upshot of this is that instead of being the drivers of development and improvement, governors become passengers and many headteachers then bemoan the quality of their school’s governance.   The reader, no doubt, will recall the famous Chinese proverb:

Tell me, and I’ll forget.

Show me and I’ll remember

Involve me and I’ll understand (and, may if I add, be committed)

Assuming that a school is developing the plan in a manner in which both, governors and staff, are fully involved, it makes sense to establish the overall purpose of the institution and the path which the key players want take.  This calls for developing a vision.  Seneca, the Roman philosopher, said: “If a man knows not what harbour he seeks, any wind is the right wind.”  Having an agreed-on destination enables governors and staff to employ their efforts towards moving in a set direction.

But is this the same as hammering out a mission statement for the school?   The answer must be “Yes” if the mission statement is clear on the direction of school development. The value of a mission statement is negated if it consists of a lengthy string of words, setting out an amorphous, ephemeral purpose lost in meaningless verbiage.

The internet is teeming with such statements.   Here’s one.

“The multiethnic community, parents, business partners, administrators, student and staff work together to create an academic, physical, emotional, social and safe environment where everyone can learn and respect one another.  We care about ourselves and others to create, support and maintain powerful, engaged learning in the Arts and Science. We dare to use innovative techniques to enhance lifelong learning through technology, the multiple intelligences, varied instructional strategies and interdisciplinary units.  We share our cultural backgrounds to nurture growth, responsibility and productivity by celebrating our diversity in a positive, school-wide atmosphere and by promoting sportsmanship, school spirit and pride in ourselves through our studies and our educational accomplishments.”

On the other hand, consider the mission statement of a school in Massachusetts, USA, for children with emotional and learning difficulties.

“Kolburne School provides a safe, caring, therapeutic environment where students with psychiatric, educational challenges can best develop the skills and character necessary to rejoin their communities with success.” The statement describes the raison d’être of the school.   Those who govern, lead and work in and for the school figure out swiftly and sign up to its mission.

The mission statement becomes even more powerful if it is short and pithy.  Shakespeare’s Polonius (in Hamlet) could not been more on the nail than when he said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

One of the most potent mission statements is owned by Lyon Park Infant School in North West London.  “Small steps, big strides,” captures the central purpose of a school which educates 400 pupils from the ages of 3 to 7.   It is easily remembered and constantly at the forefront of the minds of the governors, school managers and staff.

Mission statements not only have to be meaningful and brief but also remembered and the heartthrob of school life.   There is no point in governors and staff spending a full day agonising about framing a mission statement and then filing it on a shelf or saving it on forgotten folder of the computer.

Most important of all, mission statements have to be accepted and owned by all those who work at the school, guiding everything they do.   A little over a score of years ago, I recall (when Assistant Director of Education), being bundled off with other colleagues –senior and junior – to the Town Hall, where we were subjected to an evangelical show, which attempted to stir the attendees’ cockles and motivate them to commit themselves and their faith in the authority. Tina Turner was blaring out from the hidden loudspeakers, Simply the Best! The Chief Executive and others gave rousing speeches, reminiscent of the sermons of Billy Graham, exhorting the local authority’s staff to believe and take pride in the authority and themselves and make the area the very best in the country.

An aside from a colleague sitting beside me said it all: “I wish I could have been left alone to get on with the work that I do which would have addressed a number of problems that  I have had to tackle to ensure that schools are properly staffed.”   To all intents and purposes, the Chief Executive was talking to this colleague “in tongues” as one would do at a Pentecostal revival.

Senior officers (later) – including me – were asked to comment on the event and propose ideas for the future.    I burnt my fingers when I said that I thought much of the day was meaningless.  Staff members were subjected to shibboleths, I added.  Words got in the way of meaning and action.   A month later, the local authority was reorganising, a euphemism for “downsizing”.    I was one of the casualties and made redundant.   Even though it was withdrawn later, I thought it was in the best interests of the authority and me that we part company.

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