THINKPIECE: Are we failing children and young people due to a lack of vision?

Michael Pain

So many schools and academy trusts have no vision to speak of that responds to the needs of today’s children or anticipates the changing world and society that they will walk into….

Our education system is on the brink of failure. Not because it isn’t meeting government targets or because we are dropping down those international rankings so obsessed over by our politicians. No. Our education system is failing because it is lacking in true and meaningful vision to meet the needs of children as they face a context of deteriorating mental health and wellbeing, the erosion of essential childhood experiences, high stakes testing, technological and economic upheaval, and a society that is increasingly defined by social division.

From the government ministers in Whitehall to the governing bodies in far too many of our schools, I believe that we are seeing an education system that is fast losing sight of both its core purpose and the evolving context around it, as it seeks to serve and satisfy very narrow and ‘snapshot’ definitions of success. To be blunt, our education system has become a hamster in a wheel, and – more often than not – it can no longer see outside the box that it has been caged into.

The source of this ever-present failure is that the people with the power and the influence – the politicians – simply do not have the answers to the big questions of our time – the questions that children need us to address. They shy away from them because they are too difficult (and controversial?) and instead set an agenda for our education system that sounds good in sound-bites, appeals to competitive middle class parents, and keeps the media off their case. What we are left with is a narrow definition of children’s progress and success which is both out of touch with the modern world and is contributing to the erosion of childhood itself. This is a dangerous legacy to blindingly pursue and not enough school leaders are providing an alternative vision.

“We are left with a narrow definition of children’s success which is both out of touch with the modern world and is leading to the erosion of childhood.”

The problem is that the more time and energy we expend on focusing on and reacting to ‘the noise’ (the ever present tinkering of education policy, be it assessment, exams, changes to the inspection framework) and limiting our definition of success to a system of accountability entirely manufactured by politicians, the greater the disservice we do to children.  Instead, it is time for schools and school leaders to really seize the narrative and the agenda here – this is the difference between ‘effective leadership’ (great for serving a system) and transformational leadership amongst this generation of school leaders.

Indeed, last week’s media-frenzy over the new GCSE gradings was an example in a long line of examples on just how quickly we seem to be losing sight of what we are trying to achieve. Yes, ensuring children get strong exam results is important, we can’t ignore that. However, the result of this tinkering and the focus on narrow accountability measures as a definition of success means there is so little meaningful reflection on what education’s and schools’ roles in society are and what true success really looks like. We get lost in a debate around the numbers and our obsession with facts, figures and data which often merely represent either a child’s performance on a single day against a particular set of questions or an individual inspector’s judgment of a classroom on a specific day against a specific set of criteria. As such we are quickly distracted from asking exactly what it is that children need from us in order to thrive today and to be equipped for the future world that we must prepare them for.

I lose count of the number of times a school will tell me that their vision is ‘to achieve the very best outcomes for children’ or ‘to ensure the highest standards possible for all’ – all very noble, all very abstract.

This isn’t merely the fault of politicians. Yes, their high-stakes and entirely manufactured game of accountability and performance measures has sent us on a course towards the Sun, when we should be aiming for the stars. However, I’m afraid part of the problem is that too many schools and academy trusts have lost sight of what a vision is and are seemingly unwilling to spend the time, energy and resource on creating a purposeful and well-defined vision for genuine success as a result. This is no more evident in how so many schools and academy trusts confuse vision with mission. I lose count of the number of times a school will tell me that their vision is ‘to achieve the very best outcomes for children’ or ‘to ensure the highest standards possible for all’ – all very noble, all very abstract. However, what we have in such statements is not vision – it is merely a mission, a mission that all too often exists dangerously without vision. No one goes on to ask – what are are the outcomes that we need to achieve? How do we define the highest standards? What is our definition of success and how do we hold ourselves accountable for that? They don’t ask because for too many of our leaders have become used to the definition of success being set for them by people like Michael Gove – who are so obsessed with international rankings, league tables and the views of the press. Indeed, this lack of vision has been incentivised within the system, with so many ‘effective leaders’ often being obsessed themselves with the rankings and judgments as their main measure of success.

The true horror is that some of these entrenched challenges experienced by children and young people today are partly down to the high-stakes education system that we have created!

Failure is rife, however. Whilst it is very positive that literacy and numeracy skills amongst children are stronger then ever, the key foundation of any child’s success in life is their health, happiness and wellbeing. In short it is their ability to enjoy a childhood that allows them to learn, explore, play and grow without fear or stress that leads to achievement. Yet we live in a society where children are unhappier than ever. In 2016 England ranked 13th out of 16 countries when it came to children’s life satisfaction. Children’s dissatisfaction with their school performance, their lack of enjoyment of outdoor areas, their lack of confidence with their own bodies and the way they look all ranked particularly badly. This is especially true for girls, with 1 in 7 (14%) 10 to 15 year old girls unhappy with their lives as a whole – up from 11% over a five year period. Technology is also – before our eyes – having a damaging effect on too many children’s social development and learning (See my article on the erosion of childhood: What are the real questions that educationalists and parents should be asking themselves? ). The true horror is that some of these entrenched challenges experienced by children and young people today are partly down to the high-stakes education system that we have created! Yet where is the agenda and the leadership to address this? Where do we see the alternative vision and planning amongst schools (engaged with their communities and children in doing so) for addressing rising issues of mental health, lack of exercise and time spent outdoors, concerns over self-image, and bullying?

Of course, these crucially important things are not measured in performance tables and they do not determine the success or otherwise of our schools and our education system. Yet, not to have this at the forefront of our vision for children and young people is to fail them and to fail ourselves. Where is the vision for happy, healthy, socially confident and resilient children? How many schools and academy trusts are really putting enough meat on the bones and creating enough self-accountability in terms of their vision here? There are some, but they are few and far between. Is it these issues or Ofsted and exam results that dominate SLT and governing body meetings?

“Too many schools do very little in the way of futures thinking and sit and wait for politicians to give them the answers. That is a very dangerous course and again we risk failure.”

We also live in a rapidly changing world and vision is not only about looking outside of the boxes, but also about undertaking ‘futures thinking’. Again, too many schools do very little of this and sit and wait for politicians to give them the answers. That is a very dangerous course and again we risk failing children as they walk into a world that is far removed from the world view of Gove, Gibb et al. This is about looking outwards and understanding the world through leaders’ own independent research and reading (no, not merely more books on effective leadership!) and their relationships with and knowledge of their communities, families, staff and children – something politicians can’t or rarely draw upon.

Many of today’s traditional jobs will either no longer exist or will be revolutionized by the influence of technology. Artifical intelligence will be a constant threat. Just ask the taxi drivers and insurance companies who await the onset of driverless cars! Ask those in retail or in manufacturing who are seeing their industries transformed as automation takes hold. We will need to ensure children and young adults can be masters rather than servants of technology in a world where the depth of technological ‘know how’ is fast outpacing the ability of schools to keep up. Being able to interrogate technology, manipulating it to achieve new positive purposes and to add greater value to society will be an essential skill. Where is the vision in our education system and amongst schools for this? Do we know what successful digital literacy amongst our children looks like?

Financial literacy is also important. In a context where young adults are struggling to save money, get onto the housing ladder, and are increasingly responsible for putting aside money to pay their taxes and national insurance contributions directly, being able to manage money with care and confidence is essential. Many young people will need to take on debt to attain an advanced education, and – as they enter their adult lives – almost immediately need to make investment choices around which course or programme will deliver them value for money and a future that meets their social, emotional and financial needs. How are we preparing children and young people for this?

We also know that so many of today’s children will face a turbulent and ever-changing economy and many will be self-employed at some point during their lives. We are seeing a dramatic rise in self-employment. The onus on being entrepreneurial, adaptable and applying our knowledge to meet the changing needs of society is growing. There are now one million more people in self-employment than eight years ago. While not all pupils will end up working in the creative industries, the traditional concept of a ‘job for life’ is fast becoming a thing of the past, and today’s pupils are more likely than ever to hold several different jobs and even careers during their working lifetime. There is a growing premium on creative attitudes and entrepreneurialism. Again, where is the vision in our education system and amongst our schools for this?

Social and cross-cultural skills will be at a premium. The largest economies in the world will be in the Far East, and a growing number of our employers, clients and commissioners of services will be based there. Currently four of the world’s seven billion people live in Asia. Meanwhile, after Mandarin, Spanish will be the world’s second most used language. Being equipped to work with and across other cultures, and understanding other languages, customs and history will give our children a clear head start. Alongside this we live in our world where tolerance and respect for different cultures, environments and backgrounds is in constant jeopardy – and where children present our greatest hope in helping us to overcome these issues. Yet where is the national conversation around how we prepare children to be active, confident, tolerant, and respectful  members of a global society? Do the visions of our schools and academy trusts take this any further than ticking the boxes of the prevent agenda and British Values initiatives?

We must also be mindful of the legacy our society is leaving for children. There is no voice and no vision for the world that we hope for our children to inherit. The politicians are distinctly quiet on that – the closest we get is their ambition ‘to win the global race’, a slogan as vacuous as it is depressingly lacking in moral substance. The only real alternative ‘national’ voice I hear in our education system right now is that of the unions. This week sees the launch of the National Education Union – a momentous event in the history of our education system. A real test of this organisation will not be how well it speaks up for teachers and education professionals – of that we can be sure. No, the real test for me is how we it speaks up for children. Because in a world where the legacy we leave is increasingly one of financial insecurity, climate upheaval, technological change, and deteriorating mental health – will this new union rise to the challenge of finally giving children a voice in a society and amongst a political class that currently isn’t doing them any favours in the long term.

For many schools and academy trusts it is time to get real in terms of their vision. To spend less time looking upwards to politicians, and instead listening even more intently to their children, reaching outwards to their communities, and looking forwards to a future that they quickly need to get their heads around for the sake of the children and young people they serve. Satisfying the wants of the ‘system’ may give school leaders the short-term credibility amongst their peers and the plaudits from media and the government. But leadership is about so much more than that – it is about putting those we ultimately serve above all else and it is about shaping a legacy that stands the test of time. That requires courageous leadership that, whilst being mindful of government’s accountabilities and drivers, also generates its own well-informed vision for children’s lives and futures. It is this kind of leadership that ensures that failure is not an option!

So, in conclusion, some questions for reflection and a few hints and tips….


Some key questions

Is your school or MAT (including leaders, governors, staff and community) actively engaged in conversations around how it can protect childhood, provide the space and opportunity for essential childhood experiences, and ensure children’s health, happiness and wellbeing?

Is your school or MAT engaged in conversations around how it can equip children to engage with technology in a way that enhances their life satisfaction and develops skills for the future?

Is your school or MAT engaged in conversations around ‘futures-thinking’ and how it can begin to provide children with the experiences, learning and skills to thrive in an ever-changing and unpredictable world?

Is your school or MAT developing its own measures of success that reflect the importance of developing healthy, happy, confident, resilient, tolerant and highly literate children?


6 hints and tips for developing a compelling vision for your school or MAT

IDENTIFY YOUR ‘WHY’. First ask – collectively – what is our sense of purpose and what legacy do we wish to achieve? Don’t fall into the trap of a vision that begins with ‘what’ you are or ‘how’ you do it. Ask: why do we get out of bed in the morning?

LOOK OUTWARDS AND TO THE HORIZON. Consider the REAL job your school or MAT has to do: preparing your children to thrive and seize the opportunities and overcome the challenges of a changing world. What are the needs and opportunities facing our children and what do we need to achieve for our children and young people? How do we know when we’ve got there?

THEN ASK ‘HOW’?. Remain focused on your ‘why’ and your destination as you then consider the values, behaviours, and culture that will define your school or MAT. What do we wish to become known for amongst children, staff, parents and our communities?

SET NON-NEGOTIABLES. Consider the ‘non-negotiables’ of successful school and MAT development. Make sure these are embedded within your vision for the MAT’s future.

INVOLVE. Provide a meaningful way for stakeholders to engage in this process – your children, parents, communities and staff must have ownership in developing the vision and will provide a perspective that leaders simply can’t!

REINFORCE. Put in place opportunities to regularly and consistently reinforce the vision through communications and events. Let the vision define the framework for trustee and SLT meetings (and decisions) as well as areas such as organisation performance measures (publicly stated), staff performance management, curriculum development and financial and resource planning.


Michael Pain regularly speaks at numerous headteacher and school leadership conferences across the country. In 2014 he established the national new headteachers conference, and has also designed and delivered a number of headteacher development programmes for trusts and teaching school alliances. More information can be accessed here:

“Thank you for delivering to our ‘LeadLincs’ aspiring primary Headteachers on vision for leadership. The whole group was gripped and inspired by your session. Feedback from participants included “It was absolutely brilliant and such an inspirational start to the programme”, and from another “I just wanted to say thank you for today. I can safely say I have never come away from a ‘course’ so inspired and motivated”. It was a fantastic session to motivate a commitment to leading in education, and inspiring a passion for ambition for all children. Thank you.”


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