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Module 6: The Strategic Role and Multi-year Strategic Planning

In This Module, Trustees Will Explore:
  • The importance of setting a strategic direction and developing a Multi-Year Strategic Plan
  • How the governance role of the elected board is linked to the Multi-Year Strategic Plan

All too often, school board members are like firefighters on the ground, battling the flames when they should be in a helicopter above the fire, able to see how extensive the blaze is, which way the wind is blowing and where the resources need to be deployed.




Strategic planning is an organizational activity that is used to:

  • set priorities
  • focus energy and resources
  • strengthen operations
  • ensure that employees and other stakeholders are working toward common goals
  • establish agreement around intended outcomes and results, and
  • assess and adjust the organization’s direction in response to a changing environment.

It is a disciplined effort that produces fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an organizations is, who it serves, what it does, and why it does it, with a focus on the future. Effective strategic planning articulates not only where an organization is going and the actions needed to make progress, but also how it will assess its success.

The strategic plan is the master of other plans. Strategic planning can provide an overall strategic direction to the organization. It also gives a specific guidance for areas like financial strategy, media and communications strategy, organizational development strategy and human resources strategy, to achieve success. These other kinds of planning, some of which are confused with strategic planning, are intended for specific parts, functions or processes within the organization. All of these other types of planning should be guided and informed by the strategic plan.

Engaging in strategic conversations is a new role for many boards of trustees. Boards need to be able to clearly articulate why they exist and for whom, and these questions need to frame all strategic decisions. Simon Sinek (2009, Start with Why) suggests that the most successful organizations use the “golden circles” in their planning. The inner and most important circle is “Why?” – this is the vision and mission of your board and the inspiration for your work. The second circle is “How?” and the third is “What?” These last two circles describe the operational, day to day aspects of the board’s work. As Sinek asserts, “The Golden Circle provides compelling evidence of how much more we can achieve if we remind ourselves to start everything we do by first asking why.”[1]

What is strategic planning?

Strategic planning is a collaborative process by which an organization determines its optimal future. Strategic planning involves understanding the bigger context, determining the board’s goals and strategies, setting relevant policy, allocating resources and monitoring progress towards realization of the board’s mission and vision. It is one of the most significant leadership roles of a board of trustees.

A good Multi-year Strategic Plan (MYSP) provides:

  • A shared vision and mission
  • Clear values and beliefs that will drive actions
  • A small number of priorities that will drive the organization
  • End results or outcomes
  • Optimal key strategies
  • Alignment of resources – balance between strategies and budget
  • Key success indicators
  • Strategy for monitoring progress
  • A shared leadership and accountability framework: Who? What? When?
  • Alignment of policy with strategic directions
  • Communication strategy
  • Provision for continuous capacity building throughout the school board in order to obtain end results
Why is strategic planning important?
  • to bring everyone on board – to engage and to mobilize towards the vision
  • to be proactive vs reactive to external forces of the environment
  • to guide decision making at all levels
  • to ensure sustainability
  • to be accountable to the key stakeholders and to the public
  • to improve organizational learning and capacity
  • to communicate to the public what is important
  • to move from board compliance to overall performance
  • to respect the obligations under the Education Act[2]

The Multi-year Strategic Plan

Establishing and monitoring the implementation of the board’s Multi-year Strategic Plan (MYSP), with a budget that supports it, is a very important legislated responsibility of the board of trustees. The Education Act now requires boards to have a MYSP in place. The MYSP provides a compelling vision for the school district by establishing a small number of strategic directions for the board, with an emphasis on student achievement. The board of trustees is actively engaged in developing and confirming the strategic directions and in annually reviewing implementation of the plan.

A board’s MYSP is its “face” to the community. It informs constituents what the board intends to achieve, what its priorities are and how it plans to achieve them. It reflects the vision for the board including its overall purpose (mission statement), beliefs, strategic directions and it establishes goals for a minimum of three school years. The local practices, traditions and cultures of boards will inform its goal-setting process.

While final decisions relating to the MYSP are the responsibility of the board of trustees, the plan is developed through a partnership involving the board of trustees, the director of education (and staff) and the community. It may take several months to develop and should be the result of consultation. The public should have access to the board’s MYSP. To promote community engagement and enhance accountability many boards also provide a more “user friendly” version of the MYSP on the board website, as well as the full plan with detailed implementation and operations plans.

The MYSP and its accompanying implementation and operations plans must address:

  • student achievement and well-being
  • effective stewardship of the board’s resources
  • the delivery of effective and appropriate educational programs

In establishing its student achievement goals, boards should be mindful of the provincial targets of 75% of students achieving at the provincial standard in Grade 6 and an 85% graduation rate for secondary students. While the goals are set for the end of the three-year period, the MYSP should also include what progress the board expects to make toward the achievement of these goals at the end of each of the three years.

The director of education is responsible for implementing the MYSP and for developing the plan to implement the strategic directions. The director is also responsible for the variety of “operations” plans that are needed to run a complex school system effectively and efficiently. These flow from the strategic direction set through the MYSP. For example, the Board Improvement Plan for Student Achievement, an annual operational plan that forms part of a board’s literacy and numeracy strategy, sets out the steps that will be taken toward achieving the board’s multi-year strategic direction for student achievement.

Directors are required to review the MYSP with the board each year. It is not, however, a “rolling” plan: in other words, the directions and goals do not change significantly from year to year. Annual adjustments in implementation actions and the resources to support these actions may be required, but the directions and goals will remain relatively fixed until the end of the three years, when a new MYSP is established.

(From : Good Governance : A Guide for Trustees, School Boards, Directors of Education and Communities)

The Multi-year Strategic Plan (MYSP): A collaborative process

The Multi-year Strategic Plan (MYSP)
The Multi-year Strategic Plan (MYSP)


What do we have?

What does it mean?

What’s better?

What if?

1. Scanning the environment

This is a crucial phase where the elected board examines the organization as a whole. It is during this phase that the board analyzes information and data pertaining to the internal and external environment and collectively makes sense of this environment in order to identify emerging issues, trends and challenges and to determine how the school board needs to shift, change or improve.

To perform the environmental scan, the board can engage in a process of reflection, learning and open dialogue by using different approaches such as a SWOT analysis to identify Strengths, Weaknesses (pertains to the internal environment), Opportunities and Threats (pertains to the external environment). An alternative approach is the Appreciative Inquiry (AE) method.[3] The core message of AE is to lead an organization from a position of positive aspects and strengths and not from negativity and problems.

Relevant information and data

If you don’t use data, you’re making decisions in a fog.


An environmental scan calls on the elected board and the director of education: to analyze information, data and knowledge from multiple sources and to use this knowledge to generate collective intelligence and arrive at a shared understanding of what the information means.

This entails taking into account a broad range of internal and external information and data about student achievement and well-being and includes:

  • Academic achievement rates as well as other kinds of information that have an impact on student achievement and well-being
  • Results from provincial assessments
  • Trends in rotation and retention of staff
  • Human resources capacity
  • Results of surveys to students, parents, constituents and staff
  • Socio-economic and demographic characteristics
  • Changes in the political environment
  • New provincial regulations and legislative changes
  • Economic and market trends
  • Technological trends
  • New approaches or changes in pedagogy

It is important to remember that data is raw material that generates information. It is represented by numbers or text, or a combination of these three, and it has to be interpreted in context in order to be transformed into knowledge by:

  • Making comparisons: how does information of this situation differ from earlier corresponding situations?
  • Drawing conclusions: what effects does information have on our decisions and actions?
  • Explaining context: how is this information connected with other knowledge?
  • Discussion: what do other people think about it?

In working collaboratively with the director of education, the board of trustees interprets the data in the context of the schools, of the school board and of the entire education system in order to understand how the information impacts on the multi-year strategic planning process.

In their role of representing the views of the constituents, individual trustees also bring forward a rich perspective on student achievement needs. Each trustee is an important source of information and knowledge about the experiences of the communities they represent. When a board of trustees engages in an authentic dialogue where multiple perspectives are brought to the table, it generates a shared understanding of the context and critical issues and achieves greater clarity as to what would be the best strategies for the school board as a whole.

2. Engaging key stakeholders

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.


Who are our stakeholders, our partners?

What can we create together that would not be possible individually?

This part of the process entails a commitment to engaging the parents, the students and the board staff to collectively set the mission and vision for student achievement and well being that will be integrated in the multi-year strategic plan.

In working with students, staff, parent and community groups, the board can consider the challenges that may be experienced among particular groups of students and receive advice about how to overcome the challenges. Addressing this in the setting of the board’s strategic directions is a significant step in raising expectations and building confidence. (From Module 2 – Student Achievement: Boards Matter!)

The board can provide opportunities such as community forums, town halls, World Café[4], Open Space Technology[5], to obtain multiple perspectives from parents, partners, students and board staff in order to identify common critical issues, needs, expectations and possibilities.

This is a unique opportunity for the board to engage its stakeholders, and the broader community as valid, essential and interdependent members of a larger network. Their common purpose is grounded in a commitment to a cohesive, effectively functioning school board where students can achieve success and see that success sustained over time. The broader implications of getting this right extend to the strength, cohesiveness and future prosperity of society as a whole.

Collective capacity building
Through system leadership, the board is also concerned for the success of the education system as a whole. Learning from and sharing successful strategies across boards strengthen opportunities for all students and increases provincial capacity to make every school a winning school.

3. From vision to action: the Multi-year Strategic Plan (MYSP)

Now what?

Where to?

Who’s responsible?

How will we know we are progressing?

The elected board sets and formally approves the strategic direction and the steps involved in moving towards the realization of the board’s mission and vision. These steps include developing goals – the major results the board wants to achieve over the next 3–5 years. Goals flow from the mission and vision and address critical issues resulting from the environmental scan and needs assessments. Goals focus on results and goals are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based.

The board of trustees works collaboratively with the director of education to answer the critical questions in this phase.

Crafting an inspiring vision
First: an inspiring vision is deeply rooted in the common moral purpose of the school board or the board’s raison d’être or mission:

  • Who are we?
  • What do we stand for?
  • What is our unique contribution to a child’s future, to education and, to society at large?

Working on questions such as these will help the board of trustees to define its moral purpose and to make fundamental choices that will shape the school board’s future.

Second: an inspiring vision provides a vivid description of success, of the ideal:

  • If our board succeeded to its highest potential, what would it look like?

The answer to this seemingly simple question is the vision statement that provides direction and inspiration for establishing end results and outcomes.

Finally: an inspiring vision is based on shared values and beliefs that will drive actions. Values and beliefs define the organizational culture and provide guidelines for how the whole school board will collectively pursue its moral purpose and vision of success.

The mission statement should clearly articulate the school board’s moral purpose and values, and identify the beneficiaries of its actions as well its vision of success. A shared vision rooted in the moral purpose inspires action, builds trust, collaboration, inter-dependence, motivation and mutual responsibility for success throughout the organization.

Setting goals and determining optimal key strategies
Once the goals have been identified, the next phase is for the director of education, in collaboration with staff, and using the data collected, to determine key strategies to reach each goal. A strategy is a set of planned, appropriate and optimal approaches and solutions that enable an organization to reach a goal or to have an impact. The decisions made in the prior phases are the foundation for strategy creation and selection. When selecting strategies the key questions are:

  • Does the strategy address critical issues?
  • Is it aligned with our mission?
  • Is this strategy financially viable?
  • What are the resources or the capacities required to accomplish the strategy?

There needs to be a balance between capacity and strategies. Fullan suggests: “focus on a few key strategies; and align financial, human resource, professional development, and accountability systems to successfully achieve the strategies.”[6]

Shared leadership and accountability
As part of the strategic planning process, the board:

  • Develops the framework for a shared accountability which holds the director of education accountable for implementation of key strategies. The shared accountability framework is an indispensable part of the MYSP. It clearly outlines the roles, responsibilities and timelines required to achieve the results.
  • Determines key success indicators: specific quantitative or qualitative measurement information to indicate the progression or level of success in achieving a goal.
  • Defines the monitoring and reporting strategy in order to track progress towards achieving the goals: what is measured, how, when and source of information.
  • Develops relevant policies aligned to the MYSP (See Module 7).
  • Ensures continuous capacity building throughout the system in order to obtain end results.
  • Allocates appropriate budget and resources to implement the goals.

Capacity building concerns competencies, resources, and motivation. Individuals and groups are high on capacity if they possess and continue to develop these three components in concert.


Implementing the MYSP
The director of education with his or her staff, will implement and transform the MYSP into concrete actions plans for which they will own responsibility and share intelligent accountability.

With regard to the elected board, the concept “intelligent accountability” means that the board, in doing its job well, maintains a focus on progress rather than control. The board expects progress, provides support, seeks open explanations about results and insists on clear next steps in relation to the results being obtained.

4. Monitoring Progress and Communicating Results

Through its fiduciary role, the governing board is engaged in sustaining the board’s mission, protecting the values, the image and the credibility of the school board and the school system, and ensuring sustainable development and financial viability.

What have we set out to do?

How are we doing?

What does this mean for us?

The strategic role of the elected board calls for an ongoing practice of strategic thinking throughout the process of development, implementation and monitoring of the multi-year strategic plan. This engages the board of trustees in a continuous effort to understand issues and context. It commits the governing board to maintaining a focus on performance, effectiveness and sustainability. As such it represents a key function for effectively monitoring the results of the multi-year strategic plan, for adjusting strategies and for setting the stage for ongoing innovation. Continuous monitoring of the school board’s performance and the yearly review of the multi-year strategic plan answers the critical questions in this phase.

The board of trustees is accountable to the key stakeholders and to the public for the results achieved in the multi-year strategic plan. The board develops an effective communication strategy to promote the multi-year strategic plan and to publicly report on the achievements.


School boards are no longer merely overseers of school systems focusing on compliance with specific fiduciary duties; they are leaders of publicly funded education, they are leaders in their communities and in the province. They are charged with the responsibility to create the winning conditions within their own school boards and beyond that enable students to meet high standards of achievement within a school environment that ensures their safety and promotes their well-being. Undertaking this ethical leadership role requires boards of trustees to understand context, to recognize issues that need to be addressed, to align resources, and foster a culture within the system that supports all those charged with improving student achievement and promoting student well-being. It involves the board in articulating the shared vision and garnering the public support and resources needed to achieve that vision.

The Education Act, Section 169.1

Board responsibility for student achievement and effective stewardship of resources

(1)  Every board shall,

a. promote student achievement and well-being; b. ensure effective stewardship of the board’s resources; c. deliver effective and appropriate education programs to its pupils; d. develop and maintain policies and organizational structures that,

  1. promote the goals referred to in clauses (a) to (c), and
  2. encourage pupils to pursue their educational goals;

e. monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of policies developed by the board under clause (d) in achieving the board’s goals and the efficiency of the implementation of those policies;
f. develop a multi-year plan aimed at achieving the goals referred to in clauses (a) to (c); g. annually review the plan referred to in clause (f) with the board’s director of education or the supervisory officer acting as the board’s director of education; and
h. monitor and evaluate the performance of the board’s director of education, or the supervisory officer acting as the board’s director of education, in meeting,

  1. his or her duties under this Act or any policy, guideline or regulation made under this Act, including duties under the plan referred to in clause (f), and
  2. any other duties assigned by the board. 2009, c. 25, s. 15.

Multi-year plan

(2)  A multi-year plan is a plan for three or more school years. 2009, c. 25, s. 15.

Measures in plan

(3)  Every board shall ensure that the plan referred to in clause (1) (f) includes measures respecting the allocation of resources to improve student outcomes that fall below the outcomes specified in regulations made under section 11.1. 2009, c. 25, s. 15.


(4)  Every board shall take steps to,

a. bring the plan referred to in clause (1) (f) to the attention of supporters and employees of the board; and b. report to supporters and employees of the board about progress in implementing the plan referred to in clause (1) (f). 2009, c. 25, s. 15.


  1. Start with Why, Simon Sinek, 2009, page 38  ↩

  2. Education Act, s. 169.1(1)  ↩

  3. Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change, Cooperrider, David L. and Diana Whitney and  ↩

  4.  ↩

  5.  ↩

  6. Michael Fullan,  ↩