Mal Lee and Roger Broadie
The art of sustaining, and in time revitalising core organisational change in schools, and school systems is unique; markedly different to that in other organisations.
It is an emerging reality all interested in school development should consider.
While there are many similarities to all other organisations in the sustaining of the change it is critical to understand what sets schools apart, and not perpetuate the mistake many have made trying to apply in toto the tenets or models of organisational change in business, and indeed the public service, to schools.
Schools, and school systems are unique organisational forms, requiring apt sustaining and revitalisation strategies.
The school organisational change literature not only doesn’t recognise the marked difference between making the initial organisational change and its sustaining (Lee and Broadie, 2019) but also doesn’t acknowledge schools organisationally differ in at least six fundamental aspects to all other organisations, private and public sector.
Their remit, the societal dependence on them, the time spent developing the nation’s young, school’s perpetual existence, government’s political control, and invariably ownership, and their need to balance ‘normalisation’ with evolution combine to set them apart.
No school can be independent of the education system they are part of, be it local, parochial, provincial, national or international. All must work within the established parameters, address the set targets and meet an array of obligations.
The same combination of factors, plus the many others that impact organisational change make core school, and system change, and the sustaining of that change very challenging, with history revealing the odds strongly favour the retention of, and invariably the return to, the traditional organisational form.
Businesses exist to make money, schools to educate, and to care for the nation’s young, within a physical place called school.
The young, their parents, the wider community, and vitally the electorate expect those schools to play those roles day after day, year after year.
While accepting schools will be efficiently and effectively managed, and make good use of the funding provided schools are not perceived to be profit making enterprises.
- Societal dependence
Rather they exist to serve their society, they been given the prime responsibility for educating the nation’s young, and caring for and nurturing them while the parents work.
They are moreover expected to play that role in the contemporary world in a consistent manner, on a specified number of days each year, within given hours, and break for holidays on approximately the same dates year after year – advertising the school term dates several years in advance.
Globally modern societies, and indeed economies build their lives and workings around those school operating times and term dates, with there been virtually no likelihood of ever varying the term dates. Life in the northern hemisphere is for example still profoundly impacted hundreds of years on by a pattern of school holidays that emerged out of the agrarian year.
Societies’ dependence is invariably strengthened by governments’ mandating that all the nation’s young attend school for X years of their lives.
150 plus years on society has also come to expect – rightly or wrongly – schools to ready compliant citizens, ensure the ‘right’ material is taught, sort and sift the students, and certificate the student’s ability.
- Time spent developing the young
Schools must factor into any strategy that seeks to sustain change, and particularly to revitalise that change the responsibility they have for educating each age cohort of students over a long, invariably twelve plus year period, and doing so in a lockstep, linear manner.
While most organisations, private and public sector have only a brief interaction with the clients, schools work with them every day, for years, each year taking in a new cohort of students, while exiting another. To create a significant change in the learning behaviour of say nine year olds, it may be necessary to start that change with the children when they are only five.
Approximately 20% of the nation’s young’s learning time annually will be spent at school.
Core organisational change invariably has thus to be phased in, and the change continued with until the last student cohort departs the school.
Schools can’t like most other organisations make, and even markedly refine a core change the moment it thinks apt. They have work with the givens.
- Perpetual organisations
Schools as organisations will continue their operations while ever there is a community for which to cater; an electorate to satisfy. While non-government schools might come, and go governments must ensure communities have a school
Schools have literally existed for hundreds of years, and are on track do so for many more.
In marked contrast to business that must operate at the cutting-edge to remain viable, the viability of most schools is seldom under threat.
While it is highly desirable schools provide a quality apt contemporary education in many respects it matters not how poorly run or how dated and irrelevant is the teaching. The government schools will continue while ever there are students wanting to attend.
The demand on their ‘child care’ role, particularly at a point in history where both parents work, will see most average, and even poor schools continue to operate.
It is difficult to imagine any democratic government, wanting to stay in office opting to take up Perelman’s (1992) suggestion of closing the schools, and teaching solely online.
The perpetuity of the organisation, its longevity means staff appointed to schools will, likely unwittingly, play a custodial role in preserving and growing the history of the school, for what invariably will only be a relatively short time in the organisation’s operations. They will play their role and leave it to others to continue and hopefully grow their work. It is not unusual for there to be a 20% plus turnover of staff annually, and only rarely will the teachers stay in a K-12 school the same length as the students.
The same holds at the system level, probably even more so, particularly in those organisations that staff the central office with limited term contracts.
Interestingly, aside from staff in schools with a long history, the authors’ strong impression is that most teachers, administrators and even politicians don’t see schools operating in perpetuity, or the staff being custodians of but a period in the organisation’s history. While greater research is needed, the authors combined 80 year plus association with schools and systems points to a focus on the now, and the immediate future, that combined with a lack of corporate memory and documented history likely sees few staff regarding themselves as custodians of a heritage. The contrast with role played by staff in a museum, or even the police or fire services is likely marked, with the shortcoming needing to be factored into any change sustaining or revitalisation strategy.
Schools linked to religious organisations are also invariably limited in the degree of change they can implement by the usually conservative tenets of their governing bodies.
- Government control, ownership and politics
Another great difference between sustaining, and particularly revitalising organisational change in business and in schools is that schooling is controlled by government, in most instances the schools are owned by the government, and any core change will always depend on its electoral, political and government acceptance.
Globally governments, be they local, provincial or national control the operations of the nation’s schools – even if not directly owning them. While the nature and degree of sway varies the control of such variables as the overarching legislation, working conditions, pay rates, the funding, the curriculum authority, the examination’s board/s, teacher registration, school accreditation and teacher training ensures the government of the day will always have a powerful voice.
The power is amplified many fold when they own the schools.
With government control/ownership there will always be the continuing, often very quick turnover of the senior decision makers. Governments only have limited tenure, the ministers of education even shorter and system chief executive will on experience rarely stay more than six years.
The limited tenure, the electoral imperative to impress in the short time and the constant jockeying for power strongly inclines governments, ministers of education and their bureaucrats to favour shorter term initiatives, and to shy away from change likely to alienate the electorate.
School systems in contrast to business, invariably have senior decision makers who aren’t versed in the business at hand. Contemporary educational administration is highly likely to have a minister, political advisers and heads of the administration with no training in or experience in high level educational change. Most moreover will have little or no corporate memory.
Their expertise is politics and providing the electorate what it finds acceptable.
Sustained change must be electorally acceptable, preferably owned by the community to the extent that successive governments will be wary of intervening other than to enrich the change.
Any major revitalisation of the original core organisational change, such as shifting from a paper to digitally based operational construct will need to be electorally attractive, be embraced by the teachers and school leadership and vitally provide wins for most of the senior decision makers, the political advisers, the minister, the system executive, and in many situations also the union/s.
While accepting small ‘p’ politics is important in all sustained organisational change with schools the facility to play the small and capital ‘P’ political game is paramount.
- Accommodating ‘normalisation’ and evolution
Schooling has the immense, and growing challenge of ‘normalising’ the everyday school experience while simultaneously evolving its form to ensure the schools continue to provide an apt contemporary education, and meet their society’s rising expectations.
Much of the business literature regards normalisation as an anathema to sustained organisational change, Lewin as far back as 1947 commented on the necessity of ‘unfreezing’ the organisation. Normalisation is considered by the many of the change theorists to be a sign of failure, an indicator that the organisation had ossified and moved to a state of evolutionary equilibrium.
Those theorists reveal they don’t understand the unique nature of sustaining organisational change in schools.
Swift acceptance and ‘normalisation’ of the change by the students, staff, parents and the wider community is imperative in schooling if the core change is to succeed and be sustained over the decades. In keeping with the above mentioned factors the change needs to be perceived to be successful, and accepted by the electorate for it to have any hope of being sustained as governments and senior executive come and go.
That normalisation needs to be astutely engineered, with the electorate, as well as the staff, students and particularly the parents being educated on the merits of the core change.
But in so doing the community needs also to understand that in a time of accelerating digital evolution and organisational transformation ‘normalisation’ should be viewed as a continually evolving – not static – concept, a phenomenon where the ‘old normal’ is regularly replaced by the ‘new normal’. This is particularly apparent in the daily use of rapidly evolving digital technologies where the old ways are continually being superseded by the new, without a moment’s thought. It is however apparent in near every facet of life, work and learning where what was normal ten years ago has been supplanted.
This iterative normalisation is particularly important to the evolution of schooling, where a host of often seemingly small enhancements can combine to ensure apt adjustments are made for the evolving context; refinements readily accepted by the students, staff, electorate and government.
We’ve identified six attributes that set schooling apart for other sustained organisational change. There might well be others.
The point remains schools are unique organisations.
That uniqueness needs to be better recognised in shaping the strategies to sustain core school and system wide organisational change, and when appropriate to build upon and revitalise the core change.
While schooling should draw upon the general thinking and research on general organisational change it is imperative the decision makers contextualise their thinking and appreciate schooling is unique.
- Lee, M and Broadie, R (2019) ‘Sustained Core School Organisational Change’. LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/sustaining-school-organisational-change-mal-lee/
- Lewin, K. (1947). ‘Frontiers in group dynamics’. Human Relations, 1: 5-41.
- Perelman, L (1992) School’s Out NY Avon Books