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Independent schools strategic planning series: Part one

Thinking Ahead – Independent School Boards and Strategic Planning 

Strategic planning is where the board and principal establish, refine and review the major goals of the school and determine how they will achieve them. As such, this is the responsibility of boards. The board has a duty to ensure that the school, whatever its size, has appropriate strategic and operational plans.

Strategic planning should result in a written document from the principal and management that provides the details around who, how, when, and how much it should take to achieve each strategic objective or goal. Further, it will align resources, timing, and expectations in terms of KPIs.

Effective Governance Senior Advisor, Ian Doyle discusses more in this first part of our three-part series on independent schools strategic planning.

Good strategic planning enables a school to:

  • create a shared vision focused on its mission for the school and its teaching and non-teaching staff, students and other key stakeholders;
  • develop a road map with goals, objectives, actions and accountabilities for the school and its people;
  • create a culture of results and continuous improvement throughout the school;
  • maintain the financial health of the school and adherence to its mission or purpose;
  • build a culture of risk management that provides management with parameters through a board approved risk appetite statement;
  • hold the principal and, through the principal, management, accountable for results;
  • build structures that enable the board and management to closely monitor the school’s progress;
  • set high standards for the school in key areas, e.g., teaching and learning, financial management, governance, etc.

A board’s role in strategic planning varies from school to school and will depend upon where the school is in its lifecycle. In the early stages of a school’s existence, the board will be more ‘hands on’, developing and even implementing strategy. As the school grows, the board must step back and allow the principal and management team take a greater role in strategy development and execution. By the time the school becomes large, it will be advising management in the development of strategic plans that align with the mission or purpose of the school, the expectations of stakeholders, and an appropriate short, mid and long range focus for strategy. The board will also be actively monitoring management’s execution of approved strategic plans as well as the transparency and adequacy of internal and external communication of the strategic plan.

Table 1 is an example of a strategy process that involves both the board and management.

Table 1: Strategy roles for a school

Board Role

Principal/Management Role


The school board will use its knowledge of school and community issues and its collective experience to inform the development of the strategic plan and assist the school in identifying opportunities and threats.

The principal and management team will use their collective knowledge of the school and its external environment in the research (including a strategic audit), writing and presentation of a draft strategic plan to the board for its input.

Develop the strategic plan with the principal and management team. As a part of the process, hold a board workshop with relevant managers present to review the draft strategic plan including a review of the continuing relevance of the vision, mission/purpose and values statements. Develop the strategic plan including key performance indicators (KPIs) with the board. Attend board workshop to review the draft strategic plan with the outcomes forming the basis of the final strategic plan including action plans and annual budget.
Approval and Implementation   
Approve the strategic direction of the school, strategic plan including KPIs, action plans and annual budget. Implement the strategic plan. Establish effective policies, procedures and systems to implement and monitor progress in achieving plans and budget targets.
Oversight of the implementation of the strategic plan. Prepare and present regular reports to the board containing accurate, timely and relevant information on financial and non-financial performance of the school using agreed KPIs. 
Regular review of the achievement of goals and targets in the strategic plan against agreed KPIs. Regular reporting to the board of progress, issues and developments that affect the strategic plan and organisational performance.
Approving updates to the strategic plan and action plans as required in light of changing circumstances. Updating the strategic plan and action plans as required in light of changing circumstances. 

Every school board should ask itself what the most appropriate role it can play is in adding value in the strategy process. Ideally, the school’s strategic plan will also involve stakeholder engagement, right across the school community; for example, this might include parents, teaching and non-teaching staff, students, management, the alumni association, parents and friends’ association, etc. The development of a strategy on a page document as part of the strategic plan is one way to communicate the strategy throughout the school and to the school community once the final strategic plan is approved.

Strategic planning needs to be anchored in the school’s fundamental reason for existence – its mission or purpose, which is supported by values, and drives its vision for the future. Indeed, many strategic planning processes begin with those involved in the process creating mission/purpose, vision, and values statements. The theory is that defining a shared purpose and long-term objectives is vital to the overall planning process and to implementing the strategy.

The board’s focus should be on the school’s higher-level objectives, i.e., it should be involved in setting the broad objectives (strategic plan) ‒ rather than looking at how the school should achieve those objectives (action plans and annual implementation plans).

Time horizon

The choice of strategic planning time horizon will depend on many factors such as the stability or volatility of the operating environment. Thus, the questions for the board to consider are:

  • How volatile is the strategic environment? 
  • Generally, disruptive environments tend to lead to shorter time horizons. 
  • What is the payback period of major capital expenditure?
  • If a major investment has a long payback period (e.g., investment in a new campus), then the board will be derelict if it does not have a view of the nature of the external environment over the payback period of the investment.
  • How long will strategies take to be fully implemented? 

Given these constraints, it is necessary to think of plans with multiple time horizons:

  • one-year operational plans ‒ very detailed and related to the budget.
  • three-year strategic plans ‒ contain considerable detail.
  • five-year strategic plans ‒ the last two years are often less detailed.
  • 10 to 15 plus year master plans – guides the future development of the school site.
  • 10 to 20 plus year strategic concept plans. 

Thinking of strategy and plans over the short, medium and longer terms helps an organisation to secure sound performance in the short term, as well as focus on sustainability in the longer term. That is, it balances the focus between the needs of today (one-year operational plans), the future state of the organisation (concepts of success; vision statements), and the steps that need to be taken to get there (three to five+ year plans).

These plans can either be static or rolling:

  • static time horizons ‒ for example, a 2022–2026 five-year plan developed in 2021 and reviewed annually, but major updates only undertaken in 2026 to lead to a 2027–2031 plan.
  • rolling time horizons ‒ each year a year is dropped, and another year added. For example, the 2023–2027 plan is followed by the 2024 –2028 plan, and so on. The advantage of this type of planning is that it allows for the annual updating and refinement of the plan as the environment changes and the success or otherwise of the current strategies becomes apparent.

Strategic decision makers (i.e., the board and principal) must be willing to accept more uncertainty as they continually reset goals as they look towards the longer-term future including how the education sector must evolve to meet the challenges of new technology, market changes, and other external forces.

Keeping the board strategically focused 

An occasional situation is where boards want to devote their time to operational matters – the job of the principal and management – rather than the ‘big picture’ strategic direction. As such, the board should adopt a culture that demands its members never stop thinking strategically. A school must rely on their board – the group ultimately responsible for ensuring its future – to constantly consider, challenge and express ideas from a strategic perspective. 

There are four ways to integrate governance with strategy and thus fully engage the board:

  1. A well-designed agenda promotes an effective board meeting by putting the time directors spend together to best use by allowing sufficient time for directors to focus on future-oriented, strategic decisions when energy and concentration is high.
  2. All papers from management should include a section on strategic implications developed by management.
  3. The principal’s report must also be aligned to the strategy and include progress of strategy implementation against KPIs.
  4. Strategic conversations should be had regularly around the boardroom table, not just left as a once-a-year strategy retreat.

Another way is to hold two annual strategy workshops. The first is a forum to review progress against the prior year’s strategic plan, to highlight short-term and possible long-term changes and to identify strategic possibilities for further development. The second is a forum to actually develop and agree the strategy going forward. The first workshop will be a key input to the second and will generally precede the second by four to six months.

Focused strategy reviews can also be built into the board’s agenda at periodic times throughout the year. These reviews could cover a specific topic area such as teaching and learning or human resources and could be presented by the principal’s direct reports. Conducting ‘blue sky’ or ‘visioning’ exercises are recommended for looking to the longer-term future for the school. Bringing external independent school sector experts in to meeting to discuss topics of interest related to strategy into board meetings from time to time can also stimulate ideas and strategic thinking by the board.

School boards have a vital role to play in strategy. However, the nature of this role depends on board and school’s specific context and needs to be discussed and agreed between board and management – preferably on an annual basis. In contributing to strategy development and execution, boards need to ensure that:

  • The board takes a long-term view of outcomes and a big picture perspective of the external environment. 
  • The board adopt a systematic approach to strategy development, one that recognises that strategic thinking is distinct from strategic planning.
  • Strategy performance is continually monitored, using measures of overall organisational health and that these measures are used to review and alter the strategic direction if appropriate.
  • The board gets sufficient, well-structured information to make informed decisions. If the board is not happy with the information it receives to guide decision-making, it should make its requirements known to the principal.

If you would like to discuss strategic planning at your school or have any other questions, please contact our team at Effective Governance for more information.


Ian Doyle
Senior Advisor
Ian Doyle is Human Resources Professional with over 25 years’ experience in HR roles in the Banking and Insurance Industries. Ian started his Human Resources career in Westpac ultimately having responsibility for Senior HR portfolios across the Qld...