Posted - March 2014
 
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Developing Measurable Strategy in Schools

by Stephen Holmes, CIS Affiliated Consultant

CIS Executive Director, Jane Larsson, contacted me based on a request from the International School of Tanganyika (IST) to facilitate development of an evidence-based set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). In this article, we focus on this recent case study and share insights and challenges faced.

In the words of IST’s Director, Martin Hall, the school need was the following: 

“As a first-time Head, in a school with a highly-involved parent Board who earnestly seek to govern effectively, I was quickly faced with the need for us to develop sensible performance measures. The Board wanted these to be objective, honest, easy to understand and truly indicative of how well the school is doing. The educators in the school, by contrast, were cautious of over-simplifying matters, especially if the stakes were to be high in the use of the indicators. We decided to bring in a consultant to act as an honest broker, finding ways of reconciling the need for accountability with the reality that schools rarely have neat and easily-quantifiable aims.

We searched for an advisor who would gain the respect of the educators and of the Board and have been very pleased with what Stephen Holmes has done in this regard.”  

The purpose of engagement was to independently facilitate development of an evidence-based set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to support enactment and evaluation of an emerging School wide Strategic Plan. The School wished to have a balanced set of Key Performance Indicators related to each of its strategic aims.

The key research deliverable being a set of agreed KPIs to provide a powerful steer and pragmatic evaluative reference to the ambitions (mission, vision) and key priority deployments within the Strategic Plan. In developing the KPIs, a critical benchmark was to achieve credibility both among the educators and Board/parents in advising on what is manageable, ensuring school wide relevance and accountabilities.

OUR PERSPECTIVE

International schools are increasingly subject to a consumer-driven market in terms of recruiting international students – they compete for the ‘best’ students, while parents/students compete for the most preferred schools. A demand-driven model places unprecedented focus on strategic approaches and enhanced data management is crucial.

However, many schools still look, sound and feel very similar. Efforts to strategically position schools (with differentiation and reputational proof) have generally been relatively weak. In our judgment, bland strategic planning processes is a direct source of a lack of definable differentiation and reputation data (evidence) in schools. Strategic planning is too often a compliance-driven exercise that creates noble objectives but is relatively poor at measuring progress and actual impact. 

Developing robust and actionable performance indicators is now an increasing imperative part of strategic planning - not merely an ‘add on’ but a key rationale for it. Our assessment is that performance based metrics will increasingly be scrutinised as schools expand their services and seek stronger relationships with stakeholders. There is also increasing in-country governmental regulatory pressure to perform.  Even private schools, particularly in the Middle East, are now undergoing regular inspections by the ministries of education and other agencies. 

Though schools are largely experiential with outcomes/benefits accruing as much over time as in real time, there is an increasing push to benchmark and have well defined and realistic measures that allow for systematic proof that schools deliver on core promises for stakeholders.

Performance is the ultimate test of any strategic plan. A critical element of a robust plan is to set down some performance measure of what has been achieved set against what it was designed to do in the first place. Not doing so would leave the plan indefensible in terms of meeting its objectives, and potentially a waste of limited resources. In our experience, any lack of clarity or subsequent commitment to performance measures will tend to undermine everything that follows under the name of strategic planning, and reverberates on overall staff, parent and student satisfaction and advocacy.

WHAT THE SPECIFIC AREA OF PROJECT NEED WAS AND HOW WE ADDRESSED IT IN COLLABORATION WITH THE SCHOOL

The purpose of engagement was to independently facilitate development of an evidence-based set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to support enactment and evaluation of an emerging School wide Strategic Plan. The School wished to have a balanced set of Key Performance Indicators related to each of its strategic aims.

The key research deliverable being a set of agreed KPIs to provide a powerful steer and pragmatic evaluative reference to the ambitions (mission, vision) and key priority deployments within the Strategic Plan. In developing the KPIs, a critical benchmark was to achieve credibility both among the educators and Board/parents in advising on what is manageable, ensuring school wide relevance and accountabilities.

The basis of our consultancy involved a series of structured tasks to crystallise the aspirations and requirements of the School community for performance measurement:

  1. Reviewing Existing Analysis/Data
    • Review existing data available held by the School e.g. stakeholder analysis, planning and market positioning collateral.
    • Review existing work undertaken on the Strategic Plan. 
  2. On Site Analysis
    We conduct a series of face to face interview onsite with a sample of teaching staff, senior managers and the Board. We also conducted focus groups with parents.
  3. Integrative Analysis
    We translated the translating the findings into agreed, actionable KPIs based on the insights generated from the desk based and onsite research.
  4. On Site Workshop Facilitation- Draft KPIs
    We conduct on site a facilitated Board senior management/staff Workshop to spell out key findings from our analysis and draft KPIs for the School.
  5. Finalise KPIs and Support Dissemination
    We finalised the KPIs and supported their dissemination and marketing communication to the IST community.

EXPERTISE AND OUTPUTS

In our judgment, key outputs/benefits from the process included:

  • A set of KPIs to manage dichotomy between highly tangible (quantitative) measures of performance versus more intangible (qualitative) and longer term measures to reflect the wider value of a child’s education (merging good business practices and educational outcomes).
  • An agreed system to monitor and measure the effectiveness of each of the key aims within the Strategic Plan - facilitating the meaningfully actioning of various components of the Plan.
  • An input, throughput, and output framework in terms of structuring KPIs to strike balance between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ evidence based measures, and to reflect the more longitudinal and less linear nature that many aspects of education implicitly involves.
  • A Strategic Plan more likely to become a concerted focus for staff through meaningful measures of progress. The process of independent consultation and KPI development was perceived to support alignment of Strategic Aims within the school culture beyond mere compliance.  
  • The model of performance measures within the Strategic Plan included an agreed timeline schedule for evaluations for performance indicators. These could be potentially reviewed and extended over time.
  • An easing of any concerns about data availability and transparency within the School and a position of clarity in terms of learning and teaching focus.
  • Setting the school up for focused and purposeful translation of the Strategic Plan into external marketing communications that are tied to and celebrate the progress made
  • Aligning performance measures with strategic aims to allow the School to effectively say, ‘this is who we are, what we do, and we are all interested in telling our story publicly’.
  • A reliable intelligence funnel for the Board to have at its disposal as the School moves into an increasingly competitive landscape (one where positioning and ‘value add’ take on enhanced importance).
  • Centralisation of reliable teaching and learning data within the KPI’s to drive strategy decisions.
  • The importance of communicating to IST staff the wider imperatives and reputational purpose of strategic planning beyond any preoccupation on KPIs and suggestions of compliance.
  • Alongside formal assessment of performance of individual KPIs aligned to Strategic Plan aims, a cluster summative scoring mechanism ranging from ‘Weak’ to ‘Strong across the Board’.
     

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Stephen Holmes (s.holmes@theknowledgepartnership.com) is member of the CIS Affiliated Consultant Network. Stephen is one of three founding partners of The Knowledge Partnership (www.theknowledgepartnership.com), a global education specific market research, strategy, and reputation research consultancy for schools and universities. Stephen has published, consulted and spoken around the world on reputation management with universities, colleges and schools at the highest levels spanning three decades. Stephen’s current client list includes international schools, in Australia, New Zealand, Asia and Africa. 

Based in Kuala Lumpur, Stephen’s academic partnerships have included visiting specialists in education marketing at The University of Queensland in Australia, including development and delivery of higher degree courses in education marketing for students worldwide. He also has written widely for CREM, The Centre for Research in Education Marketing, based at The University of Southampton, UK. He is the author of a specialist book on education marketing, used by universities internationally offering education marketing courses.

CIS Note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of CIS.



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