Research School Network: The Need for Vision in Effective Implementation Why we need to know the end from the beginning


The Need for Vision in Effective Implementation

Why we need to know the end from the beginning

by Bradford Research School
on the


Gareth Medd

Director of Research and Transformation at Beckfoot Trust.

Read more aboutGareth Medd
Viaduct 1

The Ribblehead Viaduct is a grade II listed structure that carries the Settle to Carlisle Railway across the Ribble Valley in North Yorkshire. Completed in 1874, it was designed by John Sydney Crossley. Built in limestone, it is the longest structure on the railway: 400m long and 32m tall.

There was a time before this feat of Victorian engineering existed. Look again at the photo of the viaduct. Before 1869, there would have been both sides of the valley but nothing in between. Crossley knew the need, to bring the Midland Railway to Carlisle, but he will also have known the challenge, to span the Ribble Valley 300m above sea level. Before a stone was laid, Crossley could visualise something that was yet to exist, he could conceive of what would be needed to build it and, with the contractor John Ashwell, make plans for the people, materials and organisation necessary to implement his vision.


In education leadership, we use the term vision in differing ways, sometimes as a philosophy or set of values, at other times it is used to describe radical or innovative projects. While both of these perspectives are helpful, they can sometimes be ethereal or separate from the day-to-day work of schools. The example of the Ribblehead Viaduct helps us think about vision as a necessary stage in implementation leadership.

Vision is closely connected to what we see or what we will see. In this respect, vision is like a landscape with features all visible to description. For Crossley in 1888, he could say I see moorland, hills, rocks and streams” but by 1874, he could say, I see a viaduct with 24 arches, each 4m wide at the bottom and 1.8m wide at the top”. As a leader, he could make these observations in his mind’s eye before construction, confident that he could bring this into existence.

Know the end from the beginning

At my previous school, we used to say, We know the end from the beginning”. The idea was that we established what we wanted to see and put the means in place to achieve it. This approach was used to:

  • name the additional children who would need to reach age related expectations if we wanted to move from 70% to 80%;
  • describe what would take place in each lesson so that the overarching curriculum goals were achieved;
  • calculate how many lessons we would need to ensure art work was given time to be completed;
  • or clarify how the pages of exercise books be laid out so that children could be proud of their work.

Viaduct 2

I work with the Bradford Research School to lead training in implementation and support school leaders in writing implementation plans. Schools often find it easier to set final or impact outcomes (such as 80% GCSE English grade 5 or above) than to set implementation outcomes (the key steps towards these final outcomes). There is a tendency to imagine if I begin this programme, then my results will go up”. Our goal is to help school leaders unpack the black box”, to start thinking what they will need to see for their vision to be real?

When defining implementation outcomes, we ask the question, What will I see when so that I will reach my final outcomes?” It is often helpful to begin the statement, By…”. For example, By February 2022, teachers have received training in Read Write Inc (RWI): direct instruction, synthetic phonics and routines.” This is a purely logistical stage and won’t change anything in its own right; but it precedes, By April 2022, teachers, demonstrate fidelity to the RWI activities and behaviours checklist in practice and coaching sessions.” These are visible descriptions that can be verified and, if planned carefully, will lead towards our ultimate goal.

Planning for complexity

A criticism of this approach is that schools are complex environments, and it is difficult to be so prescriptive about what will happen. This is true, when building the Ribblehead viaduct, Crossley had to adapt his design to have 24 rather than 18 arches as originally intended. He also failed to consider the consequences of housing a workforce of 2,300 men and their families in temporary camps. More than 100 workers lost their lives in construction-related accidents, fighting and outbreaks of smallpox.

There may always be unintended consequences to our plans and decisions but it is in this detailed envisaging, we aim to minimise and mitigate for barriers which may affect our outcomes. By considering our implementation outcomes, we can:

  • provide dialogue and feedback to encourage the school community to buy into our implementation project;
  • develop CPD that provides support for teachers to build fidelity to the programme;
  • remove time consuming and unhelpful traditions that enable team members to find the new change feasible;
  • and be considerate to colleagues’ adoption so that the changes are acceptable and sustainable.

The new EEF School’s Guide to Implementation (May, 2024) recommends that schools Attend to the contextual factors that influence implementation”. They recommend that there is a level of context specific consideration to the suitability of the change to the setting, the enabling structures to ensure the change is practicable and the characteristics of those who are leading the change. By describing the end from the beginning sensitive to our context makes it more likely that implementation will be successful.

Viaduct 3

The Ribblehead Viaduct remains to this day, it has recently needed some restoration work but heavy freight trains still use the route. John Sydney Crossley imagined a structure that would connect two sides of a valley overcoming incredible engineering and leadership challenges. He saw something that could be, it came to be and it still is.

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