Getting the vision right
The vision for your school is your glue and the foundation of your brand. It underpins the logic of your curriculum and all your decision making, engenders loyalty, frames your successes, strengthens and heartens the team when a school goes through tough times, and drives you all to do more, every day, for the young people you serve. It helps people understand why you do what you do – and makes them want to work with you to achieve more. A strong vision and brand may also be like marmite – not everyone may automatically like it – but everyone will be clear about what you are trying to achieve and will respect you and understand the quality of what you do.
This page presents one new school's work to create a distinctive vision and ends by providing top tips for creating your school vision.
Establishing a clear vision
My purpose here is to outline the importance of a compelling mission and context-driven vision in founding a new school. The example I give is from Keystone Academy Beijing, a school that opened in September 2014, and is now completing its third year. Keystone started with 300 students, and now has 930. Capacity is 1800, which will take three or four more years to reach, and the purpose-built new campus was completed before opening. The primary division is a day school. Boarding is optional for students in grades 7 and 8, and mandatory in grades 9 through 12.
The school is already turning away large numbers of students, not through intent or strategy, but merely because applications exceed spaces by a considerable margin. This is in large measure because of our inspiring and unusual vision, which has captured the imagination of current and prospective families, and because of the manner in which the vision is being thoughtfully and thoroughly implemented in an openly values-conscious way.
The Keystone Academy vision
The initial impulse for the Keystone vision came from three Chinese friends, all of whom had studied at the college level in the United States. They wanted an American-style boarding school in Beijing. As others were brought in, including an American as the founding Board President, and an international educator as the founding Head of School, deep philosophical, cultural, and contextual deliberations ensued about the most appropriate vision. These became more complex and substantial as other senior administrators were hired, and lasted for over two years before the opening of the school. The outcome, distilled from many hours of writing and talking, fuses sensibilities that are individual, cultural, and national, and is embedded in the needs of this place and time.
The vision of Keystone Academy Beijing is decisive and precise. Decision and precision are essential in getting the vision right, as almost all else flows (and should flow) from this wellspring. Know what you are doing, define it concisely, and water it continually.
The second half of our mission comments specifically on the qualities expected from teachers, students, and graduates. The first half is more general, and philosophical. I print it in full here:
Keystone Academy is a new model of education in China. It blends distinctive traditions in eastern, western, and international education, creating a new world school with a liberal arts program that is academically outstanding. All our endeavors are framed by five shared Confucian values: compassion, justice, respect, wisdom and honesty.
At Keystone, we embrace a world that is dynamic and ever‐changing. We learn from and we learn for this enterprising, global, and diverse community.
Our keystones are:
- bilingual immersion in Chinese and English;
- building character and community throughout our residential setting;
- promoting Chinese culture and identity in a world context.
Our ambition is to share successes generously and to learn from failures bravely, to open our doors to many, and to engage fully with the world of education, and the world at large, beyond our gates.
Keystone is indeed a new model. We do blend three great traditions of teaching and learning. We do adhere to five enduring, and intercultural, Confucian values. These shared values are as stated: Compassion (ren or 仁), Justice (yi or 义), Respect (li or 礼), Wisdom (zhi or 智), and Honesty (xin or 信).
We do learn from and for the world. Our three keystones are our touchstones and, taken in combination, they are unusual if not unique in this context. We are guided by a clear sense of public purpose, sharing with others by opening our doors, in myriad ways, both for going out and for coming in. Our not-for-profit status is, for us, a clear expression of our public purpose.
Developing our vision in the educational context of China and Beijing
Keystone Academy is licensed as a Chinese private school, a Chinese school that teaches international programs and has an international flavor. While most private schools in China can only admit Chinese nationals, we are unusual in our ability to admit students from any part of the world. Furthermore, we are permitted to deliver international programs, and open them up to students who are Chinese nationals.
This allows us to promote global perspectives and intercultural exchange at all levels. Our curricular framework is the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) and the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program (MYP) and Diploma Program (DP). Our vision is not only context appropriate, but consistently aligned with our curricular choices.
A year before the opening of the school, while the buildings were being completed, a core team assembled in a downtown Beijing office. A small number of this team had already been working on the Keystone project for a year. This team numbered about 20 at the start of our pre-opening year, and grew to around 50 during 12 months. What seemed to be a logistical luxury to begin with turned out to be essential, and short-lived. I recommend as much planning lead-time as is financially affordable. When it comes to developing vision, and bringing key players onside, this is imperative.
The Board held its first full meeting at the start of our pre-opening year. At that meeting, the Keystone mission, developed and approved by the core administrative team, was endorsed. As it is a living statement of purpose, it is revisited formally every two years. It is flexible, and open to refinement as the needs and conditions of the school grow and change.
Our third keystone, what we call our Chinese Thread, is intrinsic to the vision of our school, and indeed to our definition and understanding of what it means to be a world school. This is elaborated in many publications from and about Keystone, and is linked not only to curricular content, but also to co-curricular activities, to the residential program and, crucially, to approaches and attitudes towards learning and teaching. This short extract is from the school website:
Our mission as a school is to bring together the best of three rich, deep educational traditions: the Chinese, the American, and the global. What we do inside and outside the classroom is like a brilliant cloth of three colors: however, it is the Chinese that is the main thread in this weave. We want all our students, Chinese and non-Chinese, to be knowledgeable and proud of the powerful past and promising future of China. To achieve this, our Chinese Thread brings out the pattern, in every grade of the school, of the language, history, culture, and identity of China. This focus on China and its contribution to the world allows our teachers and students to achieve a richer, more nuanced understanding of the world and their place in it. It imparts to students the critical thinking skills that will help them get ahead in the world of global exchange, politics, and culture. It inspires in students a love for learning, a respect for their own traditions and cultural differences, and a recognition of the relevance of high-level scholarship.
Lessons learned that are vision specific
Here is a checklist of six vision-centered lessons learned, all essential, and drawn from a much longer list. This is my vision six pack, if and when I help to open a new school for a second time:
- Take as much time as you need to develop the vision, but have it in place well before you open, and certainly in time for the precarious difficulties of marketing a school that does not yet exist.
- Insist that the vision, whatever it is, is compelling and context appropriate.
- Make sure that the trustees, governors, proprietors, or whatever oversight body is charged with governance, understand the vision fully and approve it formally.
- Appoint senior administrators who love the school mission, and make it a point of discussion in the always-crucial first teacher hires.
- Insist that curricular and co-curricular choices, and planning, are always related directly to the vision.
- Be prepared to write, and write, and write. This is the best way of defining and elaborating and instilling the significance of the visionary impulse that got it all going in the first place.
I am very grateful to Malcolm McKenzie, Head of School, Keystone Academy Beijing, for contributing this article. He can be contacted at www.keystoneacademy.cn