In Design a School Week 2

We Blog and Podcast about Vision or Mission Statements


I’m not comfortable with the word Vision or the Phrase Mission Statement. To me, a Vision is something you see in a state of heightened unawareness. Up there in the clouds. And then you fall backwards and babble, shake all over, get up and run wild eyed to your friends. You babble at them that you have the answer and they think you’re out of your mind.

“A Free School? Ha, ha, ha.” You invite the media for an interview.

They slaughter you.



Every Business Has One

Nowadays, however, every business has a Vision Statement. The word used this way, as far as I know, is a corporate American invention. Walmart has one, KFC, McDonald’s, Pepsi etc.

In the 80’s in Canada every state school was told to come up with one. It became the ‘in thing’. And in my school, at least, we all went, “What?” Then, “Okay let’s invent something quick and get out of here.” I mean we were inventing one after the fact. About something that was already there. So between Joan of Arc, Colonel Saunders and Backwards Creation the term vision never made much sense to me.

State the Essentials

With my first school I just wanted so state the essentials. What were the foundation ideas and the bearing walls? What you had to have to keep the place standing long term. You could alter non-bearing walls, change the decorations, move the furniture. But the building would remain solid and solidly function, the essential architecture in place. And will, but for small exceptional circumstances, remain.

This is not easy to get right because you can’t go to university and study the architecture or the engineering basics of a Democratic Free School. When you visit a school you will see the furniture, the decorations and people moving about. You will see walls but you won’t know which ones you could pull out and which ones, pulled out, would bring the place tumbling down. You won’t even think about the foundation


A Pizza Restaurant

Or let’s go to a pizza restaurant. That’s easy to define. You will know, unlike a Democratic Free School, what all kinds of restaurants are like. You will also know what a pizza is.

You can easily get training in starting and managing a restaurant. You can practice making pizzas. Work in a pizza restaurant to perfect your skills. When your Pizza Restaurant opens it will make pizza. You can change the toppings, change the decorations and the furniture and your neon sign but you will remain a Pizza Restaurant. When parents come with their children they know they will get pizza. Not fish and chips.

Restaurants and Democratic Free Schools do have one scary thing in common. Most of them fail. Even though people have a far better idea of a restaurant than a Democratic Free School


So: Vision Statement, Mission Statement, Foundation and Bearing walls, whatever you call it you must get this right; if not, your chances of success are small. And continuing to design your school most likely a waste of time.

 Jason – Clear, Concise 

Vision suggests something celestial.  Mission suggests you are going out to feed the poor.

In business plans, however, these statements are neither celestial nor charitable.  They state in simple terms what your business is about:

  • what you are selling
  • who you are selling it to
  • what your unique qualities are in an already busy marketplace.

Pigeon MissionIf you do not have a clear vision, you stumble around indecisively.  You are at the mercy of people who have stronger opinions than you.

Schools are not  pizza restaurants and it might be possible to overdo the metaphor.  However, it is important for school starters to work out exactly what their school is about so that they can communicate this clearly to parents and children.  Mixed messages and grey areas lead to confusion and conflict.

This is why I think mission statements are essential to school starters.  You can use a different name if you like, but I value the clarity of a good school’s statements.  What makes those statements work?  Well, I think the most important thing is for them to be clear, concise, and descriptive with as few vague abstract words as possible.

Kids don’t have to go to lessons at Summerhill

That is great.  From that starting point you can get to most of the other ideas.  There is no “aspiration to create a vibrant learning community”.  You know that kind of thing: it is boring and sick-making at the same time.  That is what we want to avoid.

What do you think?  Does your school have a mission statement?  Do you think they are necessary?

Don’t Miss Wednesday’s Vision Podcast !

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