Thursday , September 20 2018

Is your school vision statement gimmicky or purposeful?

Educational and Developmental Psychologist, Lecturer, University of Melbourne

Senior Lecturer in Positive Psychology, University of Melbourne

For The Conversation  

Vision and mission statements are strategic documents produced by many organisations – including schools – to indicate the purpose and priorities of the organisation. For schools, they make a public statement about what the school sees as the purpose of education and how students should learn.

Vision statements outline a school’s objectives, and mission statements indicate how the school aims to achieve that vision. Schools might have one or both.

Vision and mission statements in schools make a public declaration of the values of the school. But are such statements useful, or just nice to look at but of little substance? They can be useful – but it depends on what they include and how they’re used.

The benefits of vision and mission statements

Vision and mission statements are often reliable representations of what schools stand for, helping keep the values of the school central to how it operates.

Schools need to balance parent interests, the local community, political pressures, information and misinformation available online, and constant pressures on time and resources. Vision and mission statements can help keep the school on track with its greater purpose by helping school leaders navigate competing interests.

Vision and mission statements are unspoken contracts between the organisation and various stakeholders. A well-written statement can guide decision-making, resource allocations, policy decisions, and how the school operates. By making their purpose clear, schools can put their goals and objectives into action.

What do schools stand for?

We recently investigated the vision and mission statements of 308 secondary schools across Victoria. Perhaps not surprisingly, most (88%) vision and mission statements referred to academic achievement as a priority.

Other themes also appeared, demonstrating schools believe academic achievement is not the sole purpose of education. Promoting good mental health was referenced by 66.2% of schools, and school belonging was mentioned by 57.5%.

These themes are encouraging to see, given a sense of school belonging in individuals and mental health promotion in schools have significant positive impacts on student educational outcomes, mental health, and suicide prevention.

In a second study, we found that the inclusion of both academic and mental health promotion themes correlated with higher levels of academic achievement for the school. This is not to say the inclusion of these themes causes success, but when schools include non-academic themes in their vision and mission statements, academic success is not hampered.

Still, 34% of schools made no mention of mental health promotion. OECD and leading academics in the field say schools currently overemphasise academic achievement in a problematic way for the mental health and holistic development of students.

Schools play a central role in addressing the well-being and social and emotional needs of young people.

Problems with vision and mission statements

Despite the benefits, vision and mission statements are subject to a number of criticisms. They can be full of shallow marketing language that sounds good but has little impact on how the school operates. Staff members might not be aware of, or care about, what the statement says. This may mean the explicit values are disconnected from what actually happens in the school.

They can become dated, expressing values of generations past rather than the current needs and sentiments of the community. They can also be unrealistic and vague, providing little guidance for putting the statement into practice.

How can statements benefit the school community?

Schools should revise vision and mission statements regularly, to ensure they fit the needs of the students and community. The statement should be created collectively with all relevant parties, such as teachers, parents and school leadership. People will be more committed and supportive of something they helped create.

Vision or mission statements should avoid words and phrases that are gimmicky, catchy, obligatory or simply reflect current phases and fads. Schools should aim to be authentic and honest in their development and use of their statement.

Statements should be broad enough to cover the diversity of educational priorities in the modern era, but specific enough to guide the direction and operation of the school.

Schools should consider how the vision and/or mission statement will be implemented. How will the statement be communicated and to whom? Plan how the vision and mission statement can link strategically to the school’s policies and practices.

Schools need to make sure the school community understands and is committed to the statement. The words in a statement are meaningless without sincere efforts by school leaders, teachers, school staff, and policy makers to put those words into actions. An understanding of the statement can also help staff members prioritise their time and energy in ways that align with the values of the school.

Statements should also hold stakeholders accountable. Schools are accountable for their public statements. Parents often choose schools based on values that align with their own, and statements help fulfil those expectations. Statements can also help limit unreasonable parental demands that go beyond the school’s focus.

Well-developed and well-implemented vision and mission statements can play a useful role in helping our schools be positive and productive learning communities. Given such statements can be compared empirically and quantitatively, as we have demonstrated in our two studies, they uphold an important function for school communities. They should not be dismissed as empty words, but given careful consideration.

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