Scenario planning for schools – preparing for possible futures

No one knows what the corona pandemic will look like when the next school year starts. What do preschools, schools, and adult education need to consider? How can they prepare? Developing possible scenarios is necessary when planning for an uncertain future. To help decision-makers with the planning, the Swedish initiative Skola Hemma (School at Home), has developed a matrix with three different scenarios. It has now been translated into English and released with a CC BY Creative Commons license.

Three external contributors to Skola Hemma’s scenario planning team tell us about their work on the scenario matrix and explain the importance of scenario planning.  

We can’t predict the future, but we can create scenarios

Despite many contrary claims throughout history, there is no credible way to predict the future. The only thing we can do is try to imagine a set of different possible futures and make our plan based on that, says Martin Börjesson. He is an experienced independent consultant, helping business and the public sector in Sweden with scenario planning. 

“In scenario planning, we use our experience, knowledge, and imagination to produce realistic and clear images of the future. If we have a few different scenarios to reflect on and relate to, our field of view widens. Both opportunities and challenges appear more clearly, and we get important clues that let us prepare for what may happen.”

Scenario planning changes our view of the future

In a stable world that doesn’t undergo any direct qualitative changes, scenario planning is rather meaningless. Quantitative and unambiguous analytical data is enough to make the right decisions. But in today’s world, which is complex, uncertain, and constantly changing, it’s necessary to think and act differently.

“Scenario planning has its roots in the military’s strategic analysis. The oil industry further developed the methods in the 70s and 80s, when recurring oil crises and declining economic conditions made more long-term planning impossible. Nowadays, the technique is a crucial tool in the planning work for all organizations and activities”, says Martin Börjesson.

“Scenario planning changes our view of the future. It becomes a part of reality, which we need to relate to today. We always relate to the future, but mostly we do it based on current mental maps. Instead, the very idea of ​​scenario planning is to think a little longer and broader and to question our obvious mental map. If reality changes, we need to redraw the map we navigate by.”

The scenario matrix is the starting point of the planning process

“During the corona spring, decision-makers, administrative officials, school leaders, and teachers have worked with concrete here-and-now issues. They haven’t been able to look ahead to any greater extent,” says Kristoffer Hedram. He is a project manager at GR Utbildning, an arena for educational development in a metropolitan region in the western part of Sweden.

“The need for planning undoubtedly exists, and the scenario matrix will be a welcome tool for that task. The scenario matrix is a framework that forms the basis for the planning, from preschool to adult education. It’s an important piece of work, and I have already noticed that there is great interest at different decision-making levels in my region. The scenarios are broadly formulated and will fit well with the different school forms.”

Kristoffer Hedram, project manager at GR Utbildning.

“Different school forms have different experiences from the spring pandemic,” adds Kristoffer Hedram. “In Sweden, upper secondary schools and adult education closed and switched to distance learning. Preschools, primary schools, and secondary schools continued classroom teaching.”

“Now, when primary schools are planning for the next school year, they will face issues that upper secondary school and adult education already have confronted. Upper secondary school and adult education can instead build on three months’ experience of distance education.”

A quick overview of relevant information is necessary

The work with scenario planning comprises different components and is done step-by-step. First, the fundamental issue and the time horizon must be determined. The next step is to identify driving forces and trends and to analyze the consequences of different developments. To do this, a quick overview of relevant information is necessary.

Camilla Olsson is a librarian at the Institute for Education at the University of Gothenburg. She helps researchers find relevant literature in their respective fields. The work usually is about defining search terms, finding synonyms using different thesauruses, and identifying appropriate databases. For a few weeks, she helped the scenario planning team at Skola Hemma to collect and compile information needed for scenario planning. Working with the team was more free and self-directed than her usual work. But it was also more complex and challenging to handle.

Camilla Olsson is a librarian at the Institute for Education at the University of Gothenburg

“From early on, it was obvious that it was difficult to find research material in areas relevant to scenario planning for schools during a pandemic. The search for information could thus not be limited to the research databases. Instead, it was a matter of searching much more broadly”, says Camilla Olsson.

“For example, I searched for guidelines for how schools and government agencies handle different crises; for instance those caused by natural disasters. It made me understand how people think in these situations, which made the task somewhat easier. The search for information was rather time-consuming, but I managed to find what the scenario planning team needed. It has been a rewarding experience for me, and it was a good idea to bring in a librarian to do this work.”

A matrix with three scenarios is a manageable model

The team has developed three scenarios, extending from the start of school in the autumn and approximately one year onwards. Scenario A is an open school where classroom teaching takes place much as usual. Still, there is a readiness for a worse situation. Scenario B is a school with restrictions, where all or part of the teaching takes place online. Scenario C is also a school with restrictions, where all or part of the learning takes place online. But here, the limits have a greater force for a more extended period.

“The more scenarios you have, the more complex and challenging the planning process becomes. That is why you only need to produce as many as you feel reasonable”, says Martin Börjesson.

“A matrix with three scenarios is a model that gives a good picture of the situations that the school may encounter in the coming year. Scenario planning somewhat resembles a fire drill. However, it’s about a more fundamental uncertainty that one must learn to deal with.”

Martin Börjesson, experienced independent consultant

The three scenarios are available in different versions for national decision-makers, school owners, and principals.

At the two higher levels, the scenarios give recommendations on needed measures. For national decision-makers; this involves giving guidelines for counteracting the spread of infection, revising rules and governing documents, and establishing systems for practical support. For the principals; it’s crucial to plan the handling of the transition to distance education and to follow the updates of the regulations. They also need to adapt to the conditions that apply to public transport and ensure that fast communication is possible within the organization.

For principals, there are no recommendations. Instead, they get open-ended questions that will give them help with the necessary planning. The questions concern how education can continue despite the school’s closing and how to prepare and train the staff for different scenarios. 

What new issues may arise?

“If the school has to start online this autumn and if distance education has to continue, either entirely or partially, this will be stressful for both students and teachers. We will probably end up in a situation where it becomes necessary to view school and teaching from new perspectives,” says Kristoffer Hedram.

“As teachers become more digitally mature, they can ask other questions and make different demands. In turn, this can lead them to start looking at digital learning environments and learning materials in other ways. Will the requirements and wishes be different when the teaching is conducted entirely at a distance? What new issues may arise for the principal? Even if the school starts “as usual” and there are no significant problems, the previous normal situation is gone. The pandemic has broadened the definition of school and teaching. We can benefit from this when our developmental work continues.”

Nowadays, planning is the same as making scenarios

“It’s essential to understand that the current scenario matrix will quickly lose its value,” says Martin Börjesson. “Regardless of what happens during the fall and winter, the work on scenario planning must continue.”

“Nowadays, planning is the same as making scenarios! It’s necessary to analyze how conditions change and determine how we can meet the changes of a changing world. Optimizing and streamlining is no longer enough. There are qualitative changes that must be understood and taken into account.”

“Besides the school’s need to change its view on planning, it’s also vital that the planning horizon becomes longer”, concludes Martin Börjesson.

“If school decision-makers can imagine scenarios that extend over five years, they will have more pieces to put together in the puzzle. It makes it easier to see how much is stable and how much is changing. We can’t know what the future will bring us. The only thing we can do to prepare ourselves is creating scenarios.”

About Skola Hemma

Skola Hemma (translation: School at Home), is a support for schools to handle the consequences of the Corona pandemic in Sweden. The site is maintained by RISE (Research Institutes of Sweden) with the following partners; Swedish National Agency for Education, Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions,Swedish Edtech Industry, Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company, Swedish Institute for Educational Research, the National Agency for Special Needs Education and Schools, Save the Children, the Gothenburg Region, the Foundation of the Prince and Princess.