Knowledge-led strategy

How can we think better about school improvement? 

Schools are prone to overstretch

We need a way forward that doesn’t overload us as school leaders. 

But we should also beware of oversimplifying and boxing ourselves in to templates. 

The history of strategy can help. Out of hundreds of concepts developed over the centuries, which are most useful for school improvement? 

I’m trying out organising the concepts I’ve found most helpful into a schema of three sets: 

  • knowledge-building
  • prioritising
  • adapting

Concepts help us conceive things differently, notice and think the previously unthinkable.

I’m testing out and sharing here the schema, concepts and questions I’ve found most useful to keep returning to when thinking about school improvement planning.

Six concepts for knowing our domains, contexts and challenges.

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

1. Knowledge

Study the best available literature, research and evidence on the crux problems for schools: pupil behaviour, attendance, motivation; curriculum, subjects, teaching, vocabulary, reading, homework; staff recruitment, development, management and retention. Each domain has its own body of hidden knowledge and several disciplines that have studied it such as psychology, history and ethics. 

What can we learn from the literature and research? What do we most need to know? What are we least certain about?

2. Benchmarking 

Study the best schools and departments. Visit. Ask lots. Benchmark against their best approaches to raise the bar. Study their curriculum and development selection and sequences. Learn from the best examples.

What are the best schools, departments (or even other professions) out there doing?

What are the possibilities for what we could do better, deliberately worse, not at all and differently?

3. Enquiry

Evaluate our current depth of knowledge and expertise.

Work out our strengths and challenges.

What are the strengths, areas of expertise, constraints and development areas for us internally?

What are the best questions to ask, given where we are at right now?

4. Obstacles 

Identify the crux obstacles for our school or team. Know them well.

What are the decisive obstacles – and what are their weak points?

5. Tradeoffs 

Work out what’s in tension. In curriculum and CPD,  there are always breadth-depth tradeoffs. In school decision-making, there are sometimes also tensions between what’s best for students and what’s best for staff. There may be 1,000 students and 100 staff, but staff happiness has a massive impact on retention, relationships, teamwork and student happiness.

What are the opposing options, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

How could we combine the advantages of each whilst mitigating the disadvantages of both? 

6. Assumptions 

Imagine scenarios, risks and opportunities for our school or team.

Clarify our hidden beliefs and test them. Turn assumptions into testable hypotheses.

What are we assuming? How could we work out if we’re wrong?

What futures might we need to consider and plan for? 

Three concepts for prioritising curriculum and culture

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

1. Focus 

Focus on the critical few curriculum and culture initiatives. Select the high impact, high sustainability.

What could we pursue that would have the highest impact without being unsustainable?

2. Filters 

Pick our battles. Pick what not to do. Filter the essential from the desirable. Filter out what’s least important. Remember: there’s an opportunity cost to every yes. Yes means saying no to everything else we could do with that time.

What is desirable but not essential? What should we say no to? 

3. Anchor 

Craft a one-phrase guiding principle for culture and curriculum, with the heat of the school fray in mind.

What one thing or ‘anchor’ should all of us keep in mind at all times when making decisions?


We keep asking: will it improve our learning, without overloading us?

We help students and staff love school, and love learning our subjects.

Three concepts for adapting as things change 

‘No strategy survives first contact with reality.’ Carl von Clausewitz

1. Dialogue

Make time to walk round, see classrooms, breaks and assemblies; have conversations; listen; chat! Invest heavily in our own and our colleagues’ educational expertise and subject knowledge with discussions in CPD and line-management conversations. 

How can we carve out the time and space and create the conditions for great conversations to happen?

2. Involvement

Involve and invest teachers and staff in thinking about school improvement. Ask lots of good questions to gather perspectives.

Who should we involve? how and when? 

3. Iterations 

Reappraise the school dynamics and keep drafting multiple iterations of school improvement planning and whole-school strategies on curriculum, staff development, pupil culture, feedback, vocabulary, reading, homework, staff development, and others, so as to keep improving in the light of unintended consequences. 

How – and how often – will we iterate?

We might improve our school improvement planning with expert strategic thinking if we keep:

  • deepening our knowledge of the school, team and educational context and challenges.
  • prioritising the critical curriculum and culture initiatives. 
  • adapting, reviewing and iterating our strategic planning to school complexity and education’s fast-changing reality. 

Not to be used as a template or checklist, these concepts and questions are best applied as ways of thinking and noticing to hone our expertise over a long timespan.

Improving our expertise across 20 subjects and many more topics is daunting.

I’ve found it useful to select some crux concepts and questions, captured in a single snapshot, like the one above; that way, I can revisit it at a glance to jog the memory when under time pressure in school.

A next step is to delve down a level of granularity into the specific problems facing school leaders: curriculum, staff culture and pupil culture. There’s still masses more to consider about school culture and curriculum at a much finer-grain level of detail. We need to know much more about them, and about the most useful underpinning concepts for each.

Strategic thinking for school improvement is best built on firm foundations of deep knowledge.  

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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