If one thing is for certain, the future of the education sector is highly uncertain. We see change on a continual basis in our environment: schools failing and others succeeding; new types of schools opening and old types closing; new curricula being developed, new subjects, new qualifications and new ideas about pedagogy (although some may say that many of them are old ones, re-born!); a change in attitudes from students and from their parents; a change in our customers’ expectations and their buying behaviour.

So how do we plan for the future when it is so uncertain? Projections of past trends are useful, but only so useful. Many organisations such as Shell, and indeed governments, use the method of scenario building. This is conceptualising possibilities of future events and circumstances – to an extent, building creatively upon those opportunities and threats you might have identified if you’ve carried out a SWOT analysis.    

By considering possible happenings in the future, you can look at potential outcomes and seek to explain why things might occur. Ask yourself the ‘what if’ questions. Scenario planning can be used to plan strategic changes, but it can also help decision-making by providing leaders with insight to enable them to react better when things do, inevitably, happen or change. By engaging yourself and your leadership team in the process of acknowledging and anticipating change, you are arming yourselves with the skills and tools to be less shocked by whatever change does occur.

When creating scenarios, allow yourselves to care about the trivial and to believe the pipe-dream. What could seem ridiculous today, may well be the future. Over 230 years ago, Western Union in America turned down Alexander Graham Bell’s prototype telephone! Think, for instance about what the education sector may look like in twenty years’ time. How might technology, politics, economics or societal factors have influenced change?

Future predictions you develop may well be wrong – but this is not the test – the point of this is whether it changes how you manage your organisation, how alert you are to your environment and how you cope with a moving landscape.

To begin developing useful scenarios, consider three types of issues: predetermined elements such as social changes to the population, lifestyles and values; key uncertainties such as political and economic changes and new competitors; and driving forces such as developments in technology and education.  

Then examine some plausible outcomes from the issues identified. Try to make sure you debate some issues and outcomes which are both positive and negative. The next task is, with your team, to reach consensus on which ones to take forward as priorities in the form of viable scenarios, which you can then develop more fully into stories that will generate interest and enthusiasm. Hopefully you’ll enjoy this exercise, but if nothing else, you’ll feel more informed and prepared.