Modelling Complex Educational Change: a Preliminary Literature Review icon

Modelling Complex Educational Change: a Preliminary Literature Review

Modelling Complex Educational Change: a Preliminary Literature Review

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, UMIST, Manchester

16-18 September 2004

Michael Fertig (

Mike Wallace (

Department of Education

University of Bath

Claverton Down

Bath BA2 7AY

United Kingdom

Modelling Complex Educational Change: a Preliminary Literature Review


The purpose of this paper is to present a conceptual model of the management of complex educational change garnered from a qualitative research study carried out by one of the co-authors (Wallace & Pocklington, 2002). This involved a detailed analysis of an example of complex change, the large-scale reorganisation of schools within two Local Education Authorities (LEAs) in England during the 1990s. As a result of an extensive data gathering exercise within the two LEAs, it proved possible to identify both the characteristics of the change that made it complex to manage and a hierarchy of change management issues and themes.

A key question that emerged from the research study was whether the conceptual model could be made to fit any other range of educational changes. This paper provides an initial attempt to examine the extent to which the model fits different complex educational changes by testing it out in the light of research studies of educational reform found largely, but not exclusively, within the USA. The paper examines the potential transferability of this conceptual framework as a means of understanding the complexity of reform across national educational contexts.

This study forms part of a larger analysis of systematic programmatic change within the public services. The opportunity to carry this out was presented to one of the co-authors by the award of a public service fellowship (Reference RES-331-25-0011) within the AIM (Advanced Institute for Management Research) initiative, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The purpose of this fellowship is to assess the applicability of the model of complex educational change to different public services, concentrating on education and health. The fellowship also incorporates a comparative international dimension, with studies taking place in the United Kingdom and North America (see, for example, Wallace 2004b).

This paper will, first, delineate the key characteristics of the model of complex educational change derived from the earlier study. Research studies of complex and systemic educational change will then be analysed in order to test the applicability and transferability of the model. Finally, conclusions will be drawn regarding the question of transferability, with ideas for a future research agenda presented.

Modelling Complex Educational Change

It is clear that there exists a continuum regarding the complexity of change. This continuum ranges from a simple or modest shift in practice by an individual or group of individuals to a range of radically new practices that are linked together. Dictionary definitions of ‘complex’ suggest something that is made up of a number of constituent parts, with the suggestion of the notion of ‘intricacy’ (Chambers, 1998; Encarta, 2001). The nature of complex change can, therefore, be seen as having dual constituents. On the one hand, the complex change will have sufficient unity so as to make sense as a whole (for example, workforce remodelling for the teaching workforce in England). On the other, it will also consist of a range of features that together make up the whole (such as the differing contributions to workforce remodelling made by teachers, teaching assistants, and local education authority stakeholders). In addition, it is clear that there can be no division point on the continuum where one can say that simplicity ends and complexity begins. The model of complex educational change that is used within this paper was derived from an empirical case study located well towards the complex end of this continuum, with the aim of later testing out its applicability in different contexts.

The detailed case study of local authority reorganisation (Wallace & Pocklington, 2002) presents the stages through which the conceptual model emerged. The model itself, presented both as a theoretical construct and, more importantly, as a guide for action, consists of three dimensions:

  1. ‘five characteristics of complex change that makes it complicated to manage;

  2. four hierarchically ordered complex change management themes; and,

  3. three sequential stages in the evolution of the change process’ (Wallace, 2004b, p 4).

These dimensions will be examined in terms of the derived model before they are applied to the research studies analysed in the literature review.

Dimension 1 Characteristics of complexity that lead to complicated management

The LEA reorganisation study found that this dimension consisted of five distinct characteristics. There also appeared to be a positive correlation between the complexity of the change and the strength of the characteristic as it emerged on the ground. Firstly, the study indicated that complex educational change was large-scale, with a probable impact on a multitude of stakeholders each with an extensive range of specialist knowledge and priorities. These stakeholders were also likely to subscribe to a range of beliefs and values, some of which might be incompatible. Data from the study also found that stakeholders were often restricted as to their freedom to pursue alternative courses of action.

A further notion that emerged from the study was that complex change was seen to be componential, in that it consisted of a diverse range of sequential and sometimes overlapping components that affected different stakeholders at different times in the change process. The implication of this for leaders and managers within the LEA study was that it was important that a variety of differentiated, albeit interrelated, management tasks be identified and addressed if the change was to be effected. Though this meant that different people had responsibility for different tasks at different time in the change sequence, these contributions were also intimately connected one with the other.

The complexity of the LEA reorganisation change analysed meant that there was a multiplicity of interaction and interrelationship within and between system levels. Complex educational change was therefore seen as systemic. As Wallace has indicated: ‘The process must involve dialogue between stakeholders based at different public service levels wherever a change is initiated centrally, or at a regional system level, for implementation at a more local level’ (2004, p 6). Though this dialogue between stakeholders positioned differentially within the system does need to take place, the data from the LEA case study suggested that there was an unequal distribution of power amongst these stakeholders. Given that these stakeholders were interdependent, each with an interest in the change, there are implications here for the key management tasks that need to be carried out in order to hold the differing aspects of the change together. Ironically, though, it became clear during the development of the case study of LEA reorganisation that even those who held the most power in theory were constrained by their dependence on those who actually had to implement the change. The lesson that emerged here was that changing public service practice at the local level needed more that the passage of legislation at the regional or national levels.

In their desire to change practice at the local school level, it soon became clear to LEA representatives that complex educational change was differentially impacting. Many countries have undergone a plethora of change within their public service sectors over the last two or three decades. This has made it highly likely that the ways in which individual actors respond to any one specific change will be affected by the degree of energy that needs to be expended on other changes that are affecting their practices. So, the impact on the schools and individual teachers of LEA reorganisation was faced side by side with the impact of changes such as the development of the National Curriculum, the regime of school inspections by the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED), the testing of pupils at ages of 7, 11 and 14, and the publication of test and examination results for individual schools. Managers at both the local and the school level were managing the introduction and implementation of these changes while, at the same time, responding to the changes brought about by reorganisation. There will also be a differential awareness of each of the changes amongst the body of stakeholders. Those at the ‘centre’ are more likely to have an overview of the whole picture but, also, are likely to have the least appreciation of the impact of the changes upon the school community.

Lastly, the study found that any new change interacted with changes that were ongoing and would, therefore, be contextually dependent. Importantly, the resource implications of past changes are likely to have either a facilitating or inhibiting impact upon the implementation of any new complex change. The time, money and personnel involved in implementing past changes within the system might not be available to put the new complex change into operation. In the case study it was clear that the same personnel were earmarked to manage aspects of the key changes affecting the Local Authorities at that time.

Dimension 2 Change Management Themes

At the heart of efforts to manage complex educational change effectively lies the notion of ‘orchestration’. This notion identifies what senior leaders in complex organisational structures need to do in order to bring about change. This involves making change happen through the allocation of tasks to others, often in contextual situations that are not conducive and not of their own choosing. Wallace (2004, p 7) has presented a useful definition of this phenomenon when he talks of:

‘coordinated activity within set parameters expressed by a network of senior leaders at different administrative levels to instigate, organise, oversee and consolidate complex change across part or all of a multi-organisational system’.

This idea can best be captured by the notion of ‘steering’, with those at central or regional sites steering ‘at a distance’ from the localities where the changes will actually be implemented. As Wallace indicates, ‘steering change through orchestration is evolutionary, often unobtrusive, and includes attention to detail’ (2004, p 7).

The sense of ‘orchestration’ that emerged from the study of LEA reorganisation was, therefore, more restrained than the more visionary and charismatic features often regarded as central hallmarks of ‘leadership’. This limited view appears especially to be the case within the UK public services over recent decades. Here the ability of leaders to decide on a direction for organisational development has increasingly been restricted by the desire of politicians to move in directions that are politically inspired (see, for example, Office of Public Service Reform, 2002). On the other hand, the freedom that organisational leaders within the public services sometimes do have lies within the parameters of internal decision-making and change practices, though even here there are some constraints that arise from internal contextual factors, as identified earlier in this paper.

This view of ‘orchestration’ also contrasts with popular notions of ‘transformational leadership’ (eg Leithwood et al 1999, Southworth 1998) that stress the view that leaders can positively manipulate staff culture. A recent summary of research in this area further reinforced this view of changing or ‘transforming’ school culture and identified transformational leadership as:

‘a particular type of influence process based on increasing the commitment of followers to organisational goals. Leaders seek to engage the support of teachers for their vision for the school and to enhance their capacities to contribute to goal achievement. Its focus is on the process rather than on particular types of outcome’ (Bush & Glover, 2003, p 15).

Many studies from education (eg Nias et al 1989, Woods et al 1997, Wallace & Huckman 1999) and from industry (eg Anthony 1994, Williams et al 1993) indicate that organisational leaders and policy-makers cannot directly ‘reculture’ and remould other peoples’ beliefs and values. The most that is likely appears to be to work on the basis of some degree of minimal compliance unless there is a real congruence and alignment between the change and the value systems of those involved in implementation. There is a sense here of ‘orchestration’ playing itself out at a school level within areas of ‘distributed leadership’ (Bennett et al, 2004). Here, there is recognition by organisational leaders that practice can only be changed through an understanding of the values, beliefs, influence and authority of those nearer to the ground within the organisation. Leadership of specific aspects of the complex change will be vested in people other than the nominal leader of the organisation, since ‘distributed leadership entails the view that varieties of expertise are distributed across the many, not the few’ (Bennett et al, 2004, p 7).

In a sense, then, ‘orchestration implies coping with external demands and seeking to influence actions first, and beliefs and values second’ (Wallace, 2004, p 7). The specifics of the change scenario often require organisational leaders to act as ‘mediators’ of regional or national policy in order to bring about improvement in public service provision. In the case of LEA reorganisation, such improvement was envisioned through ideas of ‘economies of scale’ and restructuring. Further examples of ‘mediation’ at local level can be found within the ‘Workforce Remodelling’ policy within England (Bach et al, 2004) and the increasing demands for the ‘decentralisation’ of educational provision that have emerged through World Bank policies in the 1990s.

The empirical study of the Local Authorities found that those involved in the ‘orchestration’ of complex educational change needed to identify key management tasks that were required if the change was to be managed effectively. These focused on the following areas:

  1. the instigation of change management activity, determining the starting point(s) for change, largely through the degree of overall understanding that they possessed;

  2. the creation (where needed) and the sustaining of favourable contextual conditions that enable change to happen. To take a more recent example, this relates to the provision of professional development opportunities related to the changing role of classroom teaching assistants (see Bach et al, op cit);

  3. the setting up of management structures with clear delegated responsibilities to carry the change forward;

  4. the regular monitoring of progress in the light of performance criteria; and,

  5. the use of the monitoring process in order to take corrective or adaptive action to ensure that the change process remained on track.

These formed the backbone of the specific ‘orchestration’ activities carried out by leaders within the LEA reorganisation study. The need for such specific awareness emerged within the study, since the data indicated that:

‘…it is people who make the educational change complicated, though not entirely under conditions of their own choosing. Individuals and groups are affected who understand different things by the change, want different things from it, have access to different sources of power to realise their goals, are constrained by their current traditions derived from past changes, operate within large multilevel education systems where they routinely interact with others whom they never meet, and are subject to global economic trends’ (Wallace & Pocklington, 2002, p 44).

Additionally, the specifics of ‘orchestration’ were affected by the characteristics of complexity identified earlier in this paper. For example, the large-scale nature of the reorganisation change meant that LEA senior leaders had to devise means of communicating with, and harnessing the support of, a vast array of stakeholders. Also, the componential nature of the complex change meant that there needed to be a clear understanding of the various components of the change, with each having a clearly thought-out management plan. Relevant stakeholders within the components of the reorganisation change needed to be provided with clear signposts for their management tasks together with sufficient delegation for those tasks to be carried out effectively. The systemic nature of changes such as ‘Workforce Remodelling’ in England requires the orchestrated compliance or support of stakeholders across different system levels (see Bach et al, 2004 for details of this process). Those charged with orchestrating complex changes, such as moves towards educational decentralisation encouraged by the World Bank, have also needed to be aware that such changes are differentially impacting on the various stakeholders involved. The LEA study found that regular monitoring of progress, as identified above, was an essential ingredient in understanding the differentiated responses of stakeholders to the reorganisation plans within the two Local Authorities. This case study also underlined the crucial importance of the contextually dependent nature of complex change and the impact this can have upon the need for ‘orchestration’. The differing nature of each Local Authority context, together with the uniqueness of individual school profiles, meant that senior leaders within the LEAs needed to be concerned to make use of varied strategies in order to bring the reorganisation plans to fruition.

These issues clearly underline the importance to ‘orchestrators’ of maintaining an awareness of the specific needs and perspectives of stakeholders wherever possible. Indeed, Fullan (2001) has reinforced this viewpoint cogently when he argued that:

‘The problem of meaning is central to making sense of education change. In order to achieve greater meaning, we must come to understand both the small and the big pictures. The small picture concerns the subjective meaning or lack of meaning for individuals at all levels of the educational system. Neglect of the phenomenology of change--that is, how people actually experience the change as distinct from how it might have been intended—is at the heart of the spectacular lack of success of most social reforms. It is also necessary to build and understand the big picture, because educational change after all is a sociological process’ (Fullan, 2001, p 8).

Dimension 3 Change Process Sequences

Many researchers have presented models of innovation and change that seek to divide the process up into clear sequential stages (see, for example, Everard et al 2004, Fullan 1991, Huberman & Miles 1984). Very often such modelling has been devised in terms of the analysis of single innovations or changes, rather than those that are complex and systemic. The process has often been seen as conforming to a linear model of initiation, implementation and institutionalisation. These three stages encompass the decision to proceed with a change, the experience of attempting to put the change into practice, and the time when the change becomes part of normal practice and organisational culture. Data that emerged from the study of Local Authority reorganisation indicated that, even though the change was multi-layered and more complex than those envisaged by the writers cited above, the sequential model proved to be particularly robust within the ‘orchestration’ dimension of the analysis.

The systemic nature of the complex change studied meant that ‘orchestration’ fluctuated across the different levels within the educational system. So, for example, during the initiation of the change, the central backdrop was the United Kingdom government’s thrust towards ‘managerialism’ and ‘modernisation’ in order to increase efficiency and effectiveness within the public service sector (Clarke & Newman, 1997). Hence, one could argue that here the key orchestrators were government ministers or senior civil servants. The two LEAs studied presented ‘school reorganisation’ as part of their response to this policy thrust. In practice, this meant that implementation fell, initially at least, within their territory, though it moved also to senior leaders in the schools affected by the change. More complex was the notion of institutionalisation, with its implied feeling of longevity within a change. The LEA study was, though, able to make some initial comments about this phase, suggesting that there was ‘a differential impact of institutionalisation on school staff and governors’ (Wallace & Pocklington, 2002, p 207).

The LEA reorganisation study provided data that suggested that the management of educational change was both more complex and more chaotic than rational and linear theories had assumed. One key issue that emerged from the study was the question of whether the newly derived theory had more general applicability across educational contexts.

Transfer and Fit?

An initial search of research studies of large-scale complex educational change revealed that there were many studies of specific localised educational changes within a United Kingdom context (eg Nias et al 1989, Southworth et al 1998, Whitty et al 1998). An examination of the range of studies within the United States indicated that, as well as specific case studies of individual school sites affected by educational change, there were also a number of studies that attempted to locate the specific within the wider theme of systemic educational change. In addition, the brief of the AIM Fellowship, mentioned earlier in this paper, was to look at the extent to which the conceptual model of complex educational change was applicable within different national and state contexts. The comparative material analysed in this paper was, therefore, largely derived from studies carried out within a North American context. A number of general theoretical and overarching studies will be examined initially, followed by an analysis of more specific case studies from individual states.

It is worth considering, initially, the possible connections between the model of complex educational change outlined earlier in this paper and theoretical positioning regarding what have been called ‘national innovation systems’ (Balzat & Hanusch, 2004, p 197). These have been defined as ‘a historically grown subsystem of the national economy in which various organizations and institutions interact with and influence one another in carrying out innovative activity’ (Balzat & Hanusch, 2004, pp 197-198). Though this study was carried out specifically within the area of technological innovation, it is possible to see here areas of connection with the notion of ‘orchestration’. The need here is for differing parts of the change process to be aware of the needs and perspectives of other stakeholders so as to be able to ‘interact with and influence one another’. It would, though, be stretching the connection too far to suggest that the Local Authority reorganisation study illustrated the existence of a ‘national innovative system’ within the English educational policy.

A similar broader perspective on systemic change appears in the critical review of the research canon on ‘systemic educational change’ by Carr-Chellman (1999). This is an incisive examination that makes use of the Education Resource Information Center (ERIC) database to analyse research papers in this area published between 1966 and 1994. Using a range of screening instruments, a total of 267 abstracts were initially found on the ERIC database. Of these, 100 were ‘theory-based’, 46 were ‘field-based’, whilst the remainder could not be categorised according to these criteria. A further screening identified a total of 43 articles that were from peer-reviewed journals and these were subjected to detailed analysis by the author.

The aim of this article was to elucidate a clearer understanding of what was meant by ‘systemic change’ within education. The notion of ‘orchestration’ is alluded to in the author’s initial comment that ‘there is a growing acknowledgement that fixing the individual parts of any system is not as useful as approaching problems from a systemic perspective (Carr-Chellman, 1999, p 369). The clear implication here is that there is a need for change initiators and leaders to have a wide view of the nature of the educational system so that they are able to appreciate the interconnectedness of the various subsystems and stakeholder groupings. The author then goes on to use the analysis of the research studies to define ‘systemic change’ as:

‘…an approach to change that

recognizes the interrelationships and interdependencies among the parts of the educational system, with the consequence that desired changes in one part of the system are accompanied by changes in other parts that are necessary to reach an idealized vision of the whole; and,

recognizes the interrelationships and interdependencies between the educational system and its community, including parents, employers, social service agencies, religious organizations, and much more, with the consequence that all stakeholders are given active ownership of the change effort’ (Carr-Chellman, 1999, p 371, original emphasis).

This notion of ‘community and stakeholder involvement’ in systemic educational change presages a key area of distinction between the model derived from the LEA reorganisation study and much of the research emanating from the United States. Though there is a clear recognition in the English LEA data that an awareness of the perspectives of key stakeholders is an important aspect of ‘orchestration’, the approach taken by writers such as Carr-Chellman (1999) goes further. Indeed, the need to involve stakeholders runs as a central core through the article, with the author stating quite explicitly that:

‘…one of the cornerstone values of systemic change and systems thinking is the fundamental assumption that the role of a facilitator in systemic change is one of working with a community of stakeholders to create the sort of educational system that they ideally would like’ (Carr-Chellman, 1999, p 373, original emphasis).

This runs in some contrast to the evidence emerging from systemic educational change approaches within the English context, such as Workforce Remodelling, where the impetus appears to have come from a ministerial and a public service modernisation agenda (see Bach et al 2004, Office of Public Service Reform 2002).

Such a perspective is also emphasised by Gill & Griffiths (2004) who talk of the need to take account of ‘the recursive and comprehensive nature of change when viewed from the vantage points of those stakeholders within the process’ (p 241). For these writers, large-scale systemic educational change is located within a wider frame that links it to the social and political in which the change occurs. So, ‘change theorists become significant in the development of coherent approaches to redesigning the educational delivery system to provide a citizenry equipped with the moral courage to address issues of global sustainability’ (Gill & Griffiths, 2004, p 241). The clear import here is that the systemic educational change process can have two distinct functions. Firstly, it can provide (or aspire to provide) the necessary substantive changes in the knowledge, behaviour and attitudes of students. Additionally, it can also act as a form of behaviour modelling for students and other members of the school community to bring about wider change within stakeholder networks. In a sense, then, the change process within the educational arena is nested within a larger canvas that moves beyond the idea of ‘managing’ and ‘orchestrating’ the change. This approach, related as it is to that posited by Carr-Chellman (1999), suggests that the conceptual model presented earlier in this paper might need to take greater account not only of stakeholder involvement but also of their perspectives. This point is further emphasised by Gill & Griffith (2004) when they conclude that:

‘educational change is a process that occurs within a particular community of educators who are engaged in a social process of constructing, co-constructing, and reconstructing meaning within their practice’ (Gill & Griffiths, 2004, p 250).

Interestingly, this focus does not appear to be very evident in the studies of the change process within the context of public service organisations in England (see, for example, Salter 1998; Walker 2003).

This emphasis on an awareness of the impact of contextual factors within large-scale educational change is evident in many of the recent studies of change emerging in the United States. Two significant pieces of recent legislation gave impetus to the study of systemic educational change: the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration program enacted by Congress in 1997, and the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. Many studies have sought to understand the key drivers for successful systemic change within the context of these policies (Spillane & Thompson 1997; Hatch 1998; Wolf et al 2000; Hatch 2001; Hill 2001; Desimone 2002; Spillane et al 2002; Honig 2003; Earl & Lasky 2004; Hamann & Lane 2004; Noga & Seabrook 2004). These studies indicate that there are clear areas of alignment between the conceptual model derived from the LEA study and the theoretical stance of much of recent research on systemic educational change from the United States. The principal area of convergence emerges in relation to the need for a strong sense of ‘orchestration’ that is required in order to progress the implementation of systemic educational change. As Spillane et al (2002) indicate: It is not enough simply to communicate the policy. There is a critical need to structure learning opportunities so that stakeholders can construct an interpretation of the policy and its implications for their own behavior’ (Spillane et al, 2002, p 418, emphasis added).

Desimone (2002) goes even further in her review of the implementation of both ‘comprehensive school reform’ (CSR) initiated in 1997 and other whole-school reform initiatives, such as New American Schools, related to CSR but funded by private corporations such as the Rand Corporation. This review analyses reform and implementation strategies in an attempt to establish whether there were key drivers that resulted in effective reform implementation. In particular, use is made of ‘policy attribute theory’, developed during the 1980s as a result of studies of earlier reform phases (Porter et al 1993). This analysis of reforms during the 1980s identified five components seen as key to successful policy implementation:

specificity, which relates to how extensive and detailed a policy is;

consistency, concerned with the degree to which there is coherence within and across policies;

authority, which refers to the ways in which policies become law, for example through support from experts or promotion by leaders;

power is linked to the rewards and sanctions associated with policies, such as monetary incentives or penalties for non-involvement; and,

stability represents the extent to which people, circumstances and policies remain constant over time.

Much of this appears to be embedded within Dimension 1 of the conceptual model developed earlier in this paper, located within both the componential and contextually dependent characteristics. Indeed, it could be argued that, in this sense, the derived model takes this theoretical stance further, in that it looks at the importance of the emerging and changing relationship between the various ingredients that make up the model. The study by Desimone (2002) also provides evidence that supports the notion of ‘orchestration’ when the author indicates that, within the authority component, ‘…the success of school-wide projects hinges on the district’s ability to provides effective coordination and service delivery’ (Desimone, 2002, p 450). This emphasis on ‘coordination’ closely mirrors the desire for ‘orchestration’ seen as crucial for the success of the LEA reorganisation reform.

Further evidence of support for the idea of ‘orchestration’ within systemic educational reform is found in the study into the concept of ‘local capacity’ undertaken by Spillane & Thompson (1997). Their discussion centred largely on the role played by local education agency leaders in developing capacity within schools to carry out key instructional reforms. Drawing on an analysis of the reform process in nine school districts, they concluded that a centrally important factor was ‘the local education agency’s capacity to develop and carry out policies intended to support more ambitious instruction’ (Spillane & Thompson, 1997, p 185). There was also a consequent need for the reform process to be structured and coordinated by agency leaders, in the same way that this was found to be necessary in the English reorganisation study.

The study by Hatch (2001) dealt specifically with the ways in which school principals, district administrators and members of school improvement programmes in one district in San Francisco coped with the demands and expectations of multiple improvement initiatives. Though the context differs from that of ‘systemic educational change’ in that the schools themselves decided whether they wished to be involved in the reform initiatives, many of the issues identified in other studies rose to the surface. A wide range of data from the district was analysed including: documentary evidence; interviews with six school principals ranging across elementary, middle and high schools; interviews with a range of district officers; and, interviews with leaders of the relevant school improvement projects. One key finding that emerged again supported the importance of ‘orchestration’. Evidence from the study suggested that the task of coordinating multiple improvement initiatives:

‘cannot be left to schools alone; developing the capacity to make improvements and reach higher standards will depend on creating conditions in which school staff, district administrators, and improvement program personnel all carry out the tasks of coordination as a normal and recognised part of their responsibilities (Hatch, 2001, p 413).

It seems clear that, emerging from studies of complex systemic change within the United States, there is a strong degree of support for the importance of ‘orchestration’. In addition, further underpinning these studies is the notion of connecting the management of complex educational change to the attitudes and values of those charged with implementation at the organisational level. This, as stated above, adds an additional dimension to the conceptual model, a dimension not immediately evident from the analysis that emerged from the reorganisation study in England.

The central focus of these North American studies is clearly adumbrated by Spillane et al (2002), whose theoretical study of ‘policy implementation and cognition’ seeks to construct a framework for trying to understand how local practice can change as a result of public policy initiative. The attempt here is to ‘outline an approach to understanding the conditions under which such change is possible by focusing on how local actors interpret the demands that are made on them (Spillane et al, 2002, p 388). The authors focus their interest on what they call ‘implementing agents’ and suggest that:

‘What a policy means for implementing agents is constituted in the interaction of their existing cognitive structures (including knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes), their situation, and the policy signals. How the implementing agents understand the policy’s message(s) about local behavior is defined in the interaction of these three dimensions’(Spillane et al, 2002, p 388).

The clear message here appears to be that there needs to be further work to develop, within the ‘orchestration’ dimension, an awareness of the perspectives and beliefs of ‘implementing agents’. Hence, policy initiators and ‘orchestrators’ need to take much greater account of cognitive beliefs related to classroom, management and leadership practice within schools and, consequently, seek to fashion these beliefs so as to encourage positive change implementation. This did appear to be evidenced in, for example, the implementation strategy related to the introduction of the National Literacy Hour and National Numeracy Hour within the English primary sector, though less obvious (at least for classroom teachers) within the current implementation of Workforce Remodelling.

Other studies from the North American context lend further weight to the need to place greater emphasis on the ‘cognitive structures’ of stakeholders and ‘implementing agents’. For example, Desimone (2002), in her study of ‘comprehensive school reform’, placed a strong focus on this with the view that:

‘without wide-scale teacher buy-in, not only can slow implementation result, but the effort may affect only a few select teachers and their students and not the whole school’ (Desimone, 2002, p 447).

The importance of accounting for teacher perspectives is also a central and deliberate focus of the work by Wolf et al (op cit). This study investigates the ways in which teachers in four ‘exemplary’ schools in Kentucky reacted to the systemic state wide policies initiated by the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) of the late 1990s. The aim of this qualitative study was to try to illuminate the ways in which reform policies became altered and embedded in relation to teachers’ values and behaviours and, through this, to seek to answer the question ‘why do some reform efforts become institutionalised?’ (Fullan, 2001). The authors’ argument is that:

‘teachers’ responses to large-scale reform efforts exist in a larger web of connection and are dependent upon their collaborative and consistently positive stance toward learning as well as their principal’s leadership. Thus, human capital, the knowledge and willingness to learn on the part of individuals, is inextricably linked to social capital, the relationships of trust and willingness to risk among school personnel’ (Wolf et al, 2000, p 349).

A central factor that this study saw as crucial to the success of reform initiatives was the need to attempt an alignment between the values inherent in the policy reform and those of the individuals charged with implementing the reform within the schools. Analysis found that successful implementation took place where Kentucky policy initiators were aware of the need for such an alignment of values, with this alignment in practice often taking the form of professional development focused on areas of greatest ‘value dissonance’ such as assessment policy.

The imperative to take account of practitioner perspectives in the implementation of complex systemic educational change has also been highlighted in the recent study by Honig (2003) of ‘collaborative education policies’ in a single US school district. This qualitative case study gathered data between 1998 and 2000, though the researcher looked at reform events that had taken place in the district between 1990 and 2000. A mixture of direct observation, documentary evidence and interviews with participants was used to develop the database. The study focused on the development of the roles of district central office administrators in supporting the growth of partnerships between schools and their local communities. The aim was to examine whether, and in what ways, the roles that central administrators needed to take on during periods of policy implementation varied from those needed for their everyday tasks. This, clearly, plays into the question of the need for coordination and ‘orchestration’ from central office personnel. Also, though, this issue brings into prominence the degree to which such ‘orchestration’ enjoins central staff to work from an awareness of local perspectives and mores, so as to ensure that implementation at the school and teacher level is effective.

As one might have imagined, one of the main conclusions of the study was that the roles required of central district personnel during phases of reform differed significantly from those needed through periods of reform paucity. Interestingly, though, the author suggested that it was not enough for central district administrators simple to have an awareness of the perspectives of school implementers as they attempt the ‘orchestration’ of the reform initiatives. Honig argued that there was a need to ‘build policy from practice’ (2003, p 330) rather than impose policy centrally which, it was argued, usually involved relating school practice to policy within an ‘accountability’ paradigm. Such an approach clearly poses a crucial dilemma for policy initiators in that there is a real need to attempt to square the circle between a central desire to bring about what are seen to be essential, modernising, changes such as Workforce Remodelling in England while at the same time being aware that changes which demand too great a shift from ‘practice’ might not be implemented very effectively, if at all. The arguments of writers such as Honig (2003) have the potential to encourage a static and quiescent approach towards policy initiation and implementation, unless it is possible to break into the circle through strategies such as focused professional development that encourages an ‘opening-up’ of school practice.


The aim of this paper, as identified earlier, was to put up for scrutiny a model for the management of complex educational change. The key question was whether such a model, derived as it was from a specific set of changes located within a specific educational context, could be transferred and be seen to be applicable within different educational contexts.

This study, though limited in scope to an examination of a small number of studies carried out within a North American context, suggests that there are many aspects of the conceptual model that can be sustained in the move across the Atlantic. The range of characteristics that were found to make up the complexity of change within the English case study do appear to have some resonance within the North American research studies. There was plentiful evidence here that complex change consisted of a multitude of stakeholders, whether they be school-based, community-based or located within district administrative offices. The studies examined also afforded examples of the componential nature of reform, with evidence of changes taking place both within and between system levels in a systemic manner. In addition, the changes analysed provided data indicating that there had been differential impact, whether on pupils, teachers, parents or district personnel and that the degree of impact was significantly contextually dependent.

The third dimension of the model, related to ‘change process sequences’, was also found to have some direct applicability within the studies analysed, though it was evident, for example, that there was some degree of variation in the area of initiation, with some reforms being initiated centrally and imposed upon schools across a whole district or state while others left individual schools free to decide the degree of their involvement.

There was also a strong degree of alignment in the area of ‘orchestration’, with the need for detailed coordination of components and stakeholder participation being evident in many of the studies. One general conclusion that does appear to have emerged from this analysis is that where the complex educational change is related to issues concerned with structure, such as the nature of school composition following LEA reorganisation, the conceptual model has a real applicability. In other circumstances, for example where the change is focused on classroom or pedagogical practice such as in Kentucky (Wolf et al, 2000), the conceptual model does appear to need readjusting somewhat. An area for further consideration appears to be that it does not directly address the questions related to the perspectives and values of those charged with the implementation of policy at school and classroom level.

Overall, these studies suggest that there is an emerging research agenda located around these issues. Key questions for a future research agenda seem to centre on the following questions:

  1. to what extent is the model applicable within contexts of educational systems that are deliberately centrally controlled, with change very often imposed from the centre with little or no prior involvement of school-based implementers?

  1. to what extent is the model transferable to contexts of rapid educational change eg within the developing world (Botswana) where the imperative is to introduce wide-ranging changes across whole areas of an educational system within a very short time period?

  1. to what extent is the conceptual model applicable within contexts where

educational implementation has been devolved to a local level as a result of decentralisation policies embraced either willingly or as a result of external demands eg through the World Bank?


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