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Strategic thinking and planning

Updated: Jun 6

Evaluate current practice:

First, assess the school's strategic thinking and planning against the four quadrants (also available as PDF download): On a scale of 0-5 how would you rate each segment? Which of the four quadrants is strongest, weakest and how does this help to explain past performance? When you are thinking about the coming year, what will need to be the same or different?

As well as evaluating the 'whole' picture, you can use the same tool to drill down to the strategic thinking and planning in a particular department or area of school.

For example in quadrant 1, what is the vision for mathematics, what is the current assessment of the situation, and have the right goals been selected for development? Do the goals apply to everyone, a particular teacher, or a particular year group, or do they perhaps relate to particular strand of mathematics, or a particular aspect of classroom practice? Are the goals precise enough? How will accomplishing the goal take the school closer to achieving the vision for mathematics? It is also useful to consider how the goals are expressed, e.g. activate, build, change, consolidate, create, eliminate, embed, enhance, accelerate.

Circle diagram for evaluating strategic planning and thinking
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Four talk strategies that can help you harness the strategic wheel are 1) coaching - excellent for unpacking the results, exploring the implications, clarifying thinking, planning forward; 2) professional dialogue - a mid-point between advisory and coaching - a brilliant blend that helps improve knowledge and understanding as well as paving the way for change; 3) training & advisory - great for increasing knowledge base and firming up foundations on which you can then build.

As well as considering the whole, you can also explore in greater depth particular quadrants. Below are materials on the first two segments to get you started.


Within the quadrant, drill down to consider the three elements of mission and strategic intent: vision, assessment of current situation, right goals and rationale.

Remember to consider 'internal/external' factors (e.g. internal culture, finance, national policy) and 'flexible / stable' when considering this section. Think big picture and direction of travel. When assessing the current situation it is useful to look at it from a range of angles and from different stakeholder perspectives.

Leaders often underestimate the power and use of the vision. It should be so clear that you can see it in your mind, feel it in your heart, know it in your head. It should be a motivator, it should be a guide, it should help you make decisions.

How would you rate the 'quality' of the school vision, the extent to which it is known and understood by everyone, the extent to which it provides the sense of purpose and drive? How do leaders use it to shape the 3-5 year strategic plans?

You can then ask yourself follow-up questions. For example, if you have rated this 5, how is the vision contributing to high energy levels, how is it supporting momentum, how is it supporting self-evaluation? Is it being fully harnessed? Are subsets of the vision well developed? If it is not yet 5, how might it be a limiting factor? What would move the rating closer to 5 and if you did achieve this change what difference would it make?

You can also drill down to the vision at different levels in school, e.g. subject visions.

If you vision is a slogan on the wall that is nice to have but isn't a driver - think about how you can practically use it. If your subject leaders have uploaded their vision to the website, but then never look at it again, consider why they spent the time creating one. Do you need help in visioning, the use of the vision, how the vision can empower and motivate?

Assessment of the current situation: What is known and what is partially known and what is unknown? What information do you really need to collect? What do you need to verify? Sometimes, the assessment has reached a deep enough level to enable plans to be specific.

The vision should help narrow down the options into commitments. A major problem for school leaders is grappling with competing priorities. What are your 'big ticket' items? What is essential versus what is desirable? Efforts can easily become diffused when the school takes on more developments than it can handle.

  • Ask WHY questions and WHAT IF questions.

  • Ask questions such as ‘How well do we do this?’ ‘To what extent do we do this?’ ‘How effectively do we do this?’ ‘How efficiently do we do this?’ 

  • ‘What impact do current approaches and methods have?’  ‘Which pupils is this working for / not working for?’  Sometimes the current solutions only work for some of the pupils – how might this be changed, adapted, supplemented?  If you did, what impact would this have?

  • Ask ‘If we make changes, what difference would this make?’

  • Ask ‘If we could solve this problem, what impact would this have?’

Running small group discussions with different stakeholders can be revealing, and can add to other school intelligence. It can open up discussion and add a richness to school data.

When the broader information gathering is complete, there must be a strategy for narrowing down the choices.

When schools showcase an aspect of school that is truly excellent, it is rarely something they have started or implemented in a single year. It has often been 3-5 years in the making. If you try and work on everything, every year then the chances are that progress is slow and your efforts diffused. Each year, it becomes harder to select what to focus on. New research emerges, new national policies are published, new thinking is revealed. Plus, the scope of what the school will achieve has become broader. The vision and assessment of the current situation should be used to really hone in on the elements that will add the most value. Sometimes, the biggest element for improvement is something that has been on the agenda for a while, but never really seems to get resolved. Perhaps this year, it is time to take a different approach.

Creating a 3-5 year strategic plan can help, allowing you to know that whilst it isn't something you are tackling this year, it is on the plan for subsequent years and like stepping stones, you are on a journey to a better vision. This can give you the mental and emotional strength to say no to competing voices for this year's finite resources and time.

In specific in-year goals, you also need to consider precision. For example, in assessing the vision and considering the strategic plan, a school have identified that middle leadership is an area of focus for development. But what specifically will make it stronger? What precisely are the issues? Is it that middle leaders are not sufficiently empowered by senior leaders to act? Is it that middle leaders have difficulty in establishing good team norms and high levels of teamwork? Is it that middle leaders are not provided with sufficient time to carry out their duties effectively. There are three very different issues. Each of these would warrant a different approach to improving the current effectiveness of leaders:

  1. Empowerment - this might be addressed through job descriptions, senior leader delegation skills, success criteria and vision for the role laid out by the headteacher, budgeting, greater say in decision making, more involvement in whole school direction, voice and opinion matters.

  2. Management of teams - this might be addressed through training for middle leaders, coaching, team development activities.

  3. Time to carry out duties - this might be addressed though a change to the job description, a change in the % of teaching / leadership time each week, periodic extra days for leadership duties, stripping back of unnecessary tasks, increased admin and clerical support, the elimination of a clunky system.

Unless there is clarity on what the issue is, there could be a natural jump to choosing training when actually this might not result in an improvement in the performance of middle leaders because there is a mismatch between action and problem. Think about how your goals can be precise.

Another example: If vocabulary has been identified as an issue have you sufficiently drilled down to know the type of vocabulary that needs to be developed, e.g. vivid verbs, precise nouns and alternative nouns, vocabulary related to expressing emotions, vocabulary related to constructing an argument (e.g. therefore, alternatively, in addition), vocabulary related to conjunctions, vocabulary related to scientific terms, multisyllable words, vocabulary related to time. And do colleagues also appreciate the contexts in which success must be demonstrated, e.g. in reading, in English writing tasks, across the curriculum?

"In Year 4, pupils need to increase there level of vocabulary precision particularly in relation to: a) effective use of vivid verbs for action scenes in stories and when writing descriptions in information texts, b) use precise and alternative nouns in writing non-fiction across the curriculum to aid clarity and add interest for the reader."

"In Year 5, pupils need to increase their familiarity and comfort level in reading and writing multisyllable words, and as part of this achieve high levels of prefix and suffix knowledge."

"In Year 2, pupils need to increase their vocabulary linked to emotions and be able to use this in conversation with others."

How are you getting to the nub of the problems? What data is being used to help you identify the issues. For example: The Year 6 SATs data highlights the need to make improvements to mathematics outcomes. Drilling down into the data, the school identifies that pupils performance in shape/space/measure strand is weak and that fractions/decimals/percentages are low compared to national. In further investigation, there are some specific elements that come to light: 1) shape/space/measure is often taught in the summer term in every year group and is not taught with the same rigour as other strands; 2) the lack of confidence with decimals is also impacting on measuring across different year groups; 3) maths facts (e.g. 60 seconds in a minute, the radius is half the diameter, there are 500 ml in half a litre) are preventing pupils from answering questions or impacting on speed/ease of answering questions; fractions/decimals/ percentages within the strand of shape/space/measure is not fully exploited. Disadvantaged pupils are particularly lacking in practical experience that helps them move from concrete to abstract thinking. This knowledge is very helpful then deciding how to plan. Consider how this is different from 'raising attainment in Year 6 mathematics'.

The more precise the goal, the easier it is to decide on success criteria, measurables and tracking of progress towards the goal. The more precise you can be in the goal, the more likely it will be that appropriate actions will be identified to help achieve the goal.

Knowledge base: sometimes it is difficult to write precise goals because you are not sure what to look for when assessing the current picture. For example, in deciding what to focus on for the development of middle leadership you might refer to a competency grid, a book about effective middle leadership, a research piece about delegated leadership, or a job description to help guide you in asking the right questions.

How do you know what to look for in current practice?  In developing early reading - you might be aware of DfE advice on ensuring books are well matched to phonic levels – this may cause you to check / assess the extent to which books are currently supporting phonics development.  You may be aware of common issues in the delivery of teaching, such as teachers and TAs not using pure sounds when modelling phonics and therefore you may decide to check this during lesson observations.  You may appreciate the importance of prior learning and have knowledge of typical barriers and therefore investigate pupils’ phonological awareness.  You might check that pupils are given sufficient opportunity to hear the sound and then write the sound (dictation, transcription) because you know that balance (too little attention to the writing element of phonics sessions) can be a problem in development.  The level of knowledge and understanding you have will impact on your assessment of the situation. Do you need to increase your knowledge in order to better understand the issues? Do you need help in deciding what to assess?

When you have written all the goals:

Stand back and perform a sense check: When you think you have all the right goals - stand back and check the picture. If you have too many goals your efforts will be diffused.

  1. Gains are often made in the second, third, fourth or fifth year of development - are all your goals 'new' - what percentage are moving into a 'further development' stage rather than being new?

  2. Stand in the shoes of a member of staff, e.g. Year 3 teacher. When you look at the goals, what are you expecting the Year 3 teacher to change and develop across the year? Is it sensible, relevant, ambitious, achievable? If this teacher achieved all you set out for them to achieve in the development plan, what would you expect the impact to be?

  3. How does the plan take you closer towards the vision? How does the plan link to external elements, e.g. how the success of the school will be measured, different needs of stakeholders, sector level pressures?

  4. Do you envisage any structural, systems, people or cultural elements needing to change and do any of these need to actually be identified as a goal or are they threaded into other goals?

  5. How are different elements represented, e.g. % related to teaching and learning, % related to systems, % related to organisational elements? What weighting is given to different goals or strands?

For some schools, the whole process falls at the first quadrant - insufficient time devoted to setting out the mission and/or missing analysis (or too surface level analysis) of the current situation both of which reduce the chances of selecting the right goals for the right reasons. Or, the right goals have been selected but colleagues across the school are not knowledgeable about the rationale for the goals and as a result there is a lack of buy-in and a disconnect for people as to how plans are going to help the school achieve the vision. To increase energy levels and commitment to plans, there needs to be strong visualisation of the destination.

Strategy Scoping

A mistake many leaders make is to open up the action planning template in Word and stare at it, or start typing furiously into a blank grid. The best way to move from a larger goal to an action plan is to map it, graphically if at all possible.

Three ideas:

1) Hexagonal post-it notes (logo visual thinking) can help leaders to plan for connections;

2) a large whiteboard and a stack of post-it notes and pens can help a group to formulate a plan;

3) tree diagrams can be helpful to map out the initial plan.

Working together on planning together can be very beneficial (even if only one person will in the end take overall responsibility for then leading the developments), e.g. quality of thinking, critical questioning, making links, combined knowledge and experience. It is also useful to consider the research and evidence base that is helping to inform actions so that actions are likely to bring about the desired change. Sometimes, the most important action is to grow and develop the knowledge base of those leading the change.

A tree diagram can be quite useful for detailing the sub actions.

In the following example, the school wished to increase staff teaching skills and identified four strands for improvement. (Note this does not mean that these are the only ways, but that these are the ones featured on 'development' plan.) The school has identified that it doesn't have a strong knowledge base of the research on cognitive science and therefore will set up a group to utilise research findings, they have a good performance management system but wish to strengthen this, they want to move to more aligned and coherent professional development programme and have decided to increase personalisation, backing up training with other resources, creating more links, and set up a new, more formal training tracker. Before writing the detail of the plan, the leader has created a tree diagram which will then be used to help write the actual action plan. It is surprising how easy it becomes to write the action plan once a diagram has been produced.

Tree diagrams can be a good way to share top level actions with wider staff and keep everyone on track.

And for leaders,

Hearts and Cogs
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Danger zones: It can be difficult for inexperienced leaders to think about how they can influence the performance of colleagues other than leading a staff meeting. In addition, some inexperienced leaders might think that after they have delivered the meeting their work is complete. If a staff meeting / training is the answer, it is useful for experienced leaders to draw up a check list that can be used by all leaders for best practice before, during, and after. How are you helping leaders to explore 'ways of influencing colleague performance' and are you using any evidence to help you make decisions on this?

It is important not to build your house upon the sand. Time invested in fully mapping out the action plan can save time later. A good plan should help you and other colleagues to stay focused, provide a means of assessing progress, and help you divide up your leadership time. Make sure before setting off on the journey that the actions go far enough to achieve the desired outcome. The plan should not be 'in the draw, in the folder, or become wall paper'. It should be a document frequently used, referred to and discussed.

Time lines: We know from happiness at work research that colleagues motivations and well-being levels are higher when people feel that they are making progress. If all of the progress measures link to an end of year performance, it can be hard to stay motivated. What 'green shoots' and quick wins might be expected early on in the improvement process? What do you expect performance to look like at different times in the year? For example, part of the development plan might not even start until after Christmas. Not everything has to start in September.

You may find it beneficial to share your time line:

timeline for handwriting development
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Whilst it might seem hard to devote time to mapping out developments in this level of detail, think about how powerful this document would be in communicating what you wanted to achieve, empowering others to help achieve the goal, drive monitoring and corrective action, holding people to account, getting external help that is matched precisely to your needs.

People, culture, systems, resources:

The McKinsey Seven S model is useful to consider when thinking strategically. There can be a tendency for school leaders to focus on strategy, skills and staff and neglect the other areas. When this is the case, particularly if it has been the case for several years, it can impact on the ability for the school to achieve any and all of its goals and plans. It can be the element that is hidden, or that is known but not tackled, that is really holding back the school from performing as well as it should. Cultural elements are critical.

The Seven 7 model is a great tool for discussing the school development as a strategic leadership team and with governors. Sometimes the school development plan needs to actually state how some of the these will be developed. It is strange how issues such as culture never make it into a development plan - as if it will change by magic and not be determined, strategic efforts. Consider coaching and advisory support to help you use the Seven 7 model. There are some further information in the summary document below.

The McKinsey 7S model
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Don't forget to learn from what has gone well:

Garden of celebration

Thinking prompts related to quadrants 1 and 2

Do you ever talk to other headteachers, other leaders about strategic thinking processes? Do you ever sit down with someone from another school or another department and ask questions to find out more about their strategy? Which of these questions would you most like to ask another leader?

Questions related to the journey:

  • What's the first thing you did when creating the strategic development plan?

  • Who did you find it most helpful/useful to work with? Why?

  • How much time did you devote to creating the plan and how did you organise this time?

  • What tools did you use to aid SLT thinking?

  • What tools and methods did you use for stakeholder involvement?

  • What worked well in your process for involving others in developing the plan?

  • Is there anything you would have done differently?

  • What are the strengths in your planning process?

  • How has your school's culture impacted on how you have planned?

  • How have people's expectations of the planning process influenced the journey?

  • What has helped or hindered the planning process?

  • What has been the hardest part of the planning process? The easiest part? The most enjoyable part?

Questions related to 'What made the cut'?

  • What's on your plan and why?

  • What did you think about doing and then discard? What are the implications?

  • How confident are you that you have the right goals?

  • How did you prioritise? How did you managed competing voices?

  • Who or what has influenced your thinking?

  • How many one-year goal do you have compared to longer term goals? What is the 'first year' of development and what is in 'year 2 or year 3' of development?

  • Which goals / what percentage of the plan is: innovating, evolving, adapting, supplementing, consolidating, embedding, tightening? What is your thinking behind your choices?

  • Which is the hardest goal on your plan?

  • Which is the goal you would most like to achieve?

  • Which goal will have the biggest impact on pupils?

  • Which goal are you personally most passionate about?

  • What are your hopes and fears?

  • To what extent is the plan ambitious, rigorous, achievable?

  • Can you describe (in vivid detail) what it will look like if the goal is achieved? Can you visualise that future?

Questions related to 'actions' (investigate a specific goal)

  • What's the distance to travel between where you are now and where you want to be?

  • What's the most vulnerable part of the plan?

  • How did you generate options for bringing about the change and then how did you whittle this down to a strategy for achieving the goal?

  • Are the actions sufficient to achieve the goal?

  • Are the actions based on any research, evidence, best practice, knowledge of practice, training?

  • Are the actions based on really good knowledge of the current position?

  • How are you mitigating against factors that might derail the plan?

  • How will you secure buy-in for the plan?

  • How are you sharing your 'why' / rationale?

  • Are there any cultural changes that will be needed to achieve the plan? Are there any new leadership behaviours that will be required? Are there any systems or processes that will have to change to achieve the plan?

  • Are the implementation plans based on any new and innovating thinking about how change can be achieved? Are the implementation plans based on any solid evidence / previous experience about what can enable the change to take place?

  • When you stand in the shoes of a teacher in school, e.g. Year 5 teacher, what developments or changes are you expecting them to make this year? Have you performed a sense check of the totality of what you want from them? Have you considered how you will enable them to take personal responsibility for helping to achieve the goals? How are you empowering individuals?

  • If you really want to achieve a goal, what's a really hard thing that will need to happen?

In conclusion:

Despite strategic thinking and strategic planning being critical to driving forward improvements, how much time is devoted to talking about it, sharing ideas, utilising best practices and developing thinking by talking to other leaders about their processes, by reading books about strategy, by undertaking courses about strategic thinking, by engaging with a leadership coach/facilitator? Is it a natural talent or a honed way of thinking? Is it haphazard affair or a streamlined process? Is it seen as a chore or an exciting part of being as leader?

The school development plan is so much more than a plan or a map. It is one of the most important tools a leader has for bringing about desired change. It starts with fiery, passionate conversations about the vision and most important developments. It moves on to the battle for what to include in the plan, and this should be hard fought and bring everyone back to considering questions such as how will this help the school to achieve this vision. Ideally, it isn't completed in a day, it develops in stages, it involves a wide range of stakeholders, and sufficient time is devoted to whittling down initial thinking until it is a sharp.

Five important, but not always easy to answer questions to ask yourself when planning for improvement:

1) Have we identified the right goals?

2) If implemented, will the strategy achieve the goals?

3) Does everyone know how they personally can contribute?

4) How will we track progress? and

5) Are we there yet?

You might also find value in the EEF's implementation guide:

For more information on these first two strands, or the remainder of the wheel, contact Vicky Crane. If you would like training, advice or help from a strategic coach - get in touch to discuss how Vicky Crane can support you, your SLT team, your middle leaders.


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