Strategy: a 2,500 year-old history

In 10 years in schools, I’ve always been prone to frazzling overstretch. I think we as school leaders often are: it’s tough to know what and how to prioritise. I reckon the history of strategy can help us out. 

I’ll try and distill 10 years of studying strategy for school leadership into 10 minutes or so! A fool’s errand! 

What’s out there on strategy for school leaders at the moment? 

Let’s explore two examples, one from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), and one from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). 

Both have revenues of well into millions of pounds a year; both act as authorities in the school system. Headteachers, governors, school leaders and teachers look to their publications for the best available guidance. So I hope they’ll forgive me as a teacher providing a little healthy scrutiny and constructive review. 

In 2020, ASCL, the NAHT and the National Governance Association together created a guide for school leaders and governors called Being Strategic. It has a four-step annual cycle: 

(A) Good governance 

(B) Creating the strategy 

(C) Monitoring the strategy 

(D) Reviewing the strategy. 

It recommends a mission, values, a three-to-five-year vision and ideally no more than six improvement priorities annually. It recommends a termly progress report with triangulated data and an annual review with time to discuss culture and evidence of outcomes, such as progress, wellbeing, careers, resources and stakeholder engagement. 

The EEF have likewise created a 5-step school improvement cycle.

Step 1: Decide what you want to achieve

Step 2: Identify possible solutions using the EEF Teaching and Learning toolkit

Step 3: Give it the best chance of success with the EEF implementation guide 

Step 4: Evaluate impact

Step 5: Secure and spread change

What do these have in common?

Their strengths are the focus on follow through. They simplify things for school leaders under intense time pressure. They focus us on a limited number of priorities, recognising the overload that school leaders find themselves under. 

They also show how deep thinking is tough under tight time constraints.

They turn complex, dynamic planning for a complex, uncertain reality into a step-by-step template. That may be what governors need! For school leaders though, it may not. 

To see why, let’s look beyond scientific research evidence for a bit, to consider a different, equally longstanding discipline: history. 

What can we learn from the history of strategy for thinking about school improvement?

The history of strategy suggests that step-by-step approaches are flawed in how they guide our understanding, decision-making and adapting to the complexity of our ever-evolving reality.

An ultra-concise history of strategy might start with three of its greatest thinkers.

Sun Tzu, Chinese strategist

2,500 years ago in China, Sun Tzu was thinking long and hard about strategy. His thoughts have stood the test of time. 

‘Know yourself, and know your challenges, and you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’

‘Choose your battles. There are roads not to take. There are terrains not to contest. Know when to fight and when not to fight.’

‘Be ready for the unexpected. Know how to create and sustain morale. The well prepared are relaxed and fresh.’ 

In short – knowledge. priorities. adaptability. 

Carl von Clausewitz, Prussian strategist

Some two thousand years later, and two centuries ago, Carl von Clausewitz wrote another of the now-classic books on strategy.

‘No one ought to start anything without first being clear on what is intended to be achieved and how.’ 

‘Identify the decisive point and concentrate on it, ignoring lesser objectives. Pursue decisive aims with determination.’ 

‘No strategy ever survives first contact with reality. We need a philosophy of strategy that contains the seeds of its constant rejuvenation — a way to chart strategy in an unstable environment.’

In short – knowing your top priorities and adapting to evolving contexts. 

Adaptability is a crucial and recurring theme in the history of strategy. After all, what happened to our school improvement plans during a global pandemic that few expected? Partly due to a lack of Tzuian readiness for the unexpected and Clausewitzian adaptivity, few survived contact with a choppy reality.

Richard Rumelt, American strategist

Over the last 50 years, Richard Rumelt has diagnosed the problems with bad strategy. To paraphrase the four problems he sees:

1. Avoidance: we don’t identify or define the crux obstacles, so we can’t assess or improve our strategies.

2. Fuzz: we set a big goal, a long list of aims or a handful of buzzwords without setting out a clear plan for tackling the obstacles. 

3. Indecisiveness: we don’t do the really hard work to set aside good goals in favour of the best. It’s hard to forgo certain interests. 

4. Boxiness: we fill in templates for mission, values, vision and goals, step-by-step, without taking the time to diagnose the truly decisive insights, or having the agility to think beyond the linear.

Result: our strategies don’t work as well as they could. 

Bad strategy is avoidant. fuzzy. indecisive. boxy. 

Rumelt suggests that strategy tells us what not to do.


Three Pitfalls

Let’s now revisit the ASCL/NAHT & EEF approaches to school improvement in the light of what we know about the history of strategy.

Both approaches – the 5-step EEF school improvement cycles and the 4-step ASCL ‘Being Strategic’ cycle – try to be concise. Both, though, fall into the template trap, reducing strategy to following a step-by-step process. Neither mentions domain knowledge or expertise. Yet! Perhaps in future iterations..!

Here are three pitfalls for us in our school improvement planning.

First pitfall: we might oversimplify our planning into step-by-step templates that risk a reductive ‘just-follow-the-steps’ approach. The three main steps in the ASCL/NAHT guidance on ‘Being strategic’ are (a) creating (b) monitoring and (c) reviewing strategy. Each has a series of sub-steps. For instance, under creating your strategy document, the first sub-step is: ‘1. start with your vision.’

A ‘follow-the-steps’ approach is a pitfall for us as school leaders, although the simplicity might be handy for governors. If we think what we need to do is complete an annual ‘create-monitor-review’ cycle with a series of sub-steps to follow, we lose out. Starting a one-off, once-a-year school improvement plan with a vision might inhibit us from taking the time to really deeply study and understand our contexts. Taking the shortcut of ‘start with a vision’, we might miss out precious chances to listen, ask, discuss, think and seek to learn about underlying areas like student and staff cultures and subject curricula. We might miss opportunities to draft our priorities, share them, seek challenge, rethink, redraft, reshare and iterate. We miss out on messy but vital thinking and insight. 

Second pitfall: we might overload ourselves with jargon like mission, vision, and metacognition, ideas that become buzzwords

The EEF toolkit, for instance, bundles the ideas of metacognition and self-regulation together as having ‘consistently high levels of impact’: +7 months of additional student progress. One of the top two interventions based on ‘the international evidence’, apparently. The EEF then unbundles self-regulated learning into three supposedly ‘essential components’: cognition, metacognition and motivation that are ‘usually more effective when taught in collaborative groups’. There is lots of abstraction here and not much clarity. 

ASCL and the NAHT say, ‘try not to have more than six improvement priorities in the same document’. Why so many, isn’t clear.

Buzzwords like mission and vision risk becoming fuzzy, abstract, overloading and unmemorable phrases for websites and brochures that mean little to our children, teachers and other staff. 

Third pitfall: we might underestimate the importance of domain knowledge in making good decisions. Neither the ASCL/NAHT report nor the EEF mention knowledge even once. Likewise, we might imagine, from lofty heights on SLT, trust, governing board, union or national level and beyond, that knowledge is lower-order and doesn’t matter very much, and that our generic strategic thinking skills apply nicely across all areas of the school, regardless of whether we know very much or very little about the specific area or context in particular. But a school leader who doesn’t really know their stuff loses their credibility with teachers and subject leaders. 

The risk is, we as SLT might overreach and distort subjects by imposing generic strategy on them. 

We might fall into this pitfall as school leaders if we rush school improvement plans without first considering the gaps in our own knowledge. If we’re honest, there is always too much for any individual or team to know. SLT won’t be experts in every one of the 15 or so subjects that school teaches. 

So we also need to know when and how to draw on expertise from outside our existing teams in order to make better decisions. For instance, secondary teachers and school leaders rarely have in-depth knowledge of decoding, phonics, bereavement or child criminal exploitation. We can usefully draw on external expertise in certain arenas to make better decisions when prioritising curriculum tuition and pastoral strategy. 

In summary, we’ve seen three pitfalls to watch out for.

We might end up oversimplifying our planning into step-by-step templates.

We might end up overloading ourselves with too many abstract buzzwords.

We might end up underestimating the hidden knowledge that’s useful for effective decision-making, perhaps overestimating our expertise or overreaching.

How can we avoid these pitfalls of oversimplifying, overloading and underestimating the importance of knowledge?

Expert knowledge

We can develop our expertise by building underpinning knowledge in the crux domains of schools, such as curriculum, behaviour and staff culture.

Research on experts suggests that expertise is highly specific: that complex skills are tied to specific knowledge of a specific subject arena or domain. Expert chess players aren’t necessarily great bridge players. World-class tennis players won’t be as good at badminton. Expert pianists won’t be as good at electric guitar. Near transfer between domains that are closer may be easier than far transfer between domains that are further apart – but even transfer of knowledge to new problems within subject domains seems to be quite tricky for novices.

When we as senior and middle leaders create strategy, that isn’t all it is – it’s a school improvement strategy, a subject curriculum strategy, a subject department strategy, a behaviour strategy, a student recruitment strategy, a staff retention strategy, a vocabulary strategy, a homework strategy or a reading strategy, say.  

Expertise is domain-dependent. It’s best to know a lot about vocabulary or reading if you want to create a really good strategy on either. If you know more, you see more; you see differently. Over time, you see better, learn more and decide better.

One example: one of my many mistakes

Three years ago as Vice Principal for Curriculum, I brought in a ‘research-based’ start-of-lesson strategy of written subject recaps to begin all lessons in the school, aiming to focus us as teachers on what cognitive science suggested was important for lasting learning – knowledge, memory, practice, revisiting, retrieval and subject thinking – rather than the jazzy, whizzy, flashy, entertaining starters that took us as teachers ages to prepare. Written recaps, when selected and designed by subject experts with deep, broad, oceanic knowledge of their subject curriculum and student struggles in the subject, might work well for writing subjects. 

But I now think that imposing an always-written start distorted subject knowledge in languages (where conversing, listening and choral repetition are central), drama, art (both visual and performing), music, design technology, physical education and other creative subjects. 

Now, I would allow subject leaders to choose the format of subject recaps at the start of lessons. Knowing more about structures of subject knowledge in these disciplines has helped me see things in a different light, decide better and, hopefully, distort less. Knowing more than I did before, I see things differently. Underpinning knowledge can improve overarching decision-making. 

We can improve the thinking and decisions in our school improvement plans, our curriculum strategies, our behaviour and attendance strategies and CPD strategies if we remember the research evidence that suggests expertise is solving precise problems using specific knowledge sets to see hidden issues and lurking pitfalls.

When we create school improvement strategy, or any other strategy in the school, psychological research into expertise suggests that to make effective decisions, one of the best things we can do is to build our own and our team’s knowledge in that area.

Drawing on the best current research base, Tom Rees and Jen Barker at Ambition Institute offer us a deep yet decisive view of school leadership development as building knowledge and mental models on persistent school problems while building trust. Knowing more helps us decide better.

Drawing on the best current research base,  Leona Cruddas and Ian Baukham at the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) likewise offer us a similarly deep yet decisive view of school improvement as deliberate and intentional knowledge-building. If we as school leaders can wisely build our knowledge of curriculum, student and staff culture, we may improve our thinking, make better decisions, create better strategy and achieve better outcomes.] 


Questions gleaned from the history of strategy can help us see and evade classic pitfalls in school improvement plans. 

To avoid the pitfall of overload and to deprioritise better, we can ask:

where can we be more decisive on what not to do – on what to say no to?

To avoid the pitfall of oversimplifying and to embrace complexity, we can ask:

where can we better stay adaptable and not box ourselves in to templates? 

To avoid underestimating knowledge and to know our school better, we can keep asking: 

where can we deepen our knowledge of the crux domains of curriculum and school culture?

These questions can start to challenge our thinking and broaden our conversations. 

Ultimately, though, questions and discussions alone won’t fully address the challenges facing school leaders.

Knowing our subject curricula and school culture really well, knowing the best available research evidence and knowing how to use the best mental models from broader subject disciplines like the history of strategy, help us to make better decisions on what’s best to do and what’s best not to do for our school. 

There is no shortcut to effective school improvement. It depends on deep expertise. 

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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