Why we need to think seriously about structures


 Photo by Jo Fothergill / CC BY-SA 2.0 

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Author: Ron Glatter

School structures don’t matter. All that counts is high standards of teaching and leadership. It’s a point of view that’s become accepted wisdom among many policy-makers and commentators as well as some professionals. But it’s a dangerous and misleading argument -  how a school system is organised matters hugely. Excellent teaching and quality leadership are obviously vital, but they can’t fully work their magic in a capricious and dysfunctional framework.

The devil and the deep blue sea

A recent paper by Steve Munby, Chief Executive of the Education Development Trust, and Michael Fullan, the noted Canadian expert on school improvement, illustrates the point very well. In a paper that kicks off a four country dialogue the authors point out that in many countries today leaders are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the one hand they have to deal with heavy top-down accountability which fails to motivate people and can distort the purposes of education; on the other, they must react to government’s emphasis on autonomy and diversity at school level, which can easily breed isolation and excessive variability. One is a top-down approach, the other is bottom-up, and both are replete with risks. Running both at the same time as is the case in a number of countries carries the danger of multiplying the potential hazards.

One important point made by these authors, which I have also previously stressed, is the need to think in whole system terms: “You can’t run a whole system for students in a region, state or country by relying entirely on exceptional leadership in each school.” That way, they say, you get “change in small pockets… with exceptional schools attracting the best talent and the rest left struggling in comparison”. Paul Cappon, a Canadian specialist makes a similar point about England in a review presented last year to our Department for Education (DfE). He comments that there is too much focus on individual schools and too little on the wider system: “Systematic attainment cannot be principally founded on isolated examples of individual leadership and innovation [….]This is one reason [why] the English education system appears to be inherently unstable”.

School to school networks

Munby and Fullan’s proposed solution is school-to-school networks, managed by ‘Leaders in the Middle’: “We believe that leaders can either remain a victim of fragmented and top-down policies or they can turn the tables”. The networks approach is similar to the idea of the school-led self-improving system currently promoted in England and being researched by a team at the UCL Institute of Education’s London Centre for Leadership in Learning (LCLL) where I am a Visiting Professor. Whether this approach is up to the challenge or merely compounds fragmentation and variability will become clearer over time. 

Transactional leadership versus transformational leaders

In a fascinating table at the end of the paper the authors compare the transactional leader of school systems with the transformational system leader across nine pairs of characteristics. For example: As part of the problem, teachers and leaders are criticized and ground down versus Treats teachers and leaders as part of the solution. Another binary refers to political dogma as opposed to a coherent theory of change, aligned to evidence and monitoring data. All this leads me to think that a core failure of much centrally-promoted ‘reform’ concerns basic human relations. As Oxford social policy professor Stein Ringen has written, in relation to English public service reform:

“By its style of management, the government put public professionals under command. It failed to mobilise them for its reforms and instead alienated them by its heavy-handedness”

And it’s not only about professionals. As Munby and Fullan point out there is great potential value in ‘horizontal accountability’: ‘listening to the student and parent voice and the engagement of governors and community groups’. If too much emphasis in network arrangements is placed on the role of leaders, they argue, there’s a risk of simply replacing one form of top-down accountability with another. This is something I’m very aware of as a trustee of one of the hundreds of school networks which now operate under the aegis of the Co-operative movement in England.

So structures do matter. How could anyone doubt that the way an activity is organised has a significant bearing on its effectiveness? These are important and challenging issues, which is why in recent years BELMAS has broadened its focus to encompass them, for example through several of its Research Interest Groups (RIGs), such as those on Structural Reform and Governing and Governance. Through the projects and exchanges they facilitate, especially the interactions between practitioners, policy-makers and researchers on thorny issues such as those identified by Munby and Fullan, we aim to contribute to a theory of structural change that is based more on monitoring and evidence and less on myth.

ron smaller Ron Glatter is Emeritus Professor of Educational Administration and Management at The Open University, a Visiting Professor at the UCL Institute of Education and Honorary President of BELMAS.
If you have an interest in structural reform or governing and governance, please consider joining the BELMAS Structural Reform or Governing and Governance Research Interest Groups (RIGs). To join the RIGs, become a BELMAS member or click the box alongside the relevant RIG groups on your 'My Details' page. Views or opinions expressed in BELMAS blog articles are solely those of the author and do not represent the views or expressions of BELMAS or BELMAS RIGS.
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