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Why secondary schools unknowingly persist in using the wrong system

By Peter Barnard - posted Wednesday, 8 December 2021

There is more than one way of organising a large secondary school but the one that dominates is based on same-age organisation, a grade system. Organisation by age is a powerful organisational driver. For the same-age or grade system it creates a teaching-dependent system setting in motion a litany of operative assumptions. These schools have complicated development plans that serve no purpose other than to reify their existing system. Theirs is a forlorn search for pedagogical laws and research-based strategies to somehow make the inherited same-age hypothesis appear to work despite a long history of reformational failure.

My work with hundreds of secondary schools worldwide shows how they invariably develop similar management rhetoric and structural controls enshrined in policy. At the organisational heart of such schools is a capacity issue. They never have enough human resources or finances to do all the tasks demanded of them leading to overwork and disillusionment. However, there is another side to capacity. The same-age school endorses a management strategy based on digging a hole in the road. Two are digging and a host of others are watching, advising, inspecting, appraising, and reporting while simultaneously kicking more stuff into the hole being dug.

In such a teacher-dependent system, there is a limit on the school's capacity to cope with increases in learning demand on the school's system. There are only so many teachers and so little time. Consequently, the school is hit by a stream of reformational, management, and pedagogical initiatives to improve teacher productivity, ie increase the capacity to cope with the learning demand on the school's system. Unfortunately, not only do 'what works' initiatives not work, but they contribute to distress and the loss of authenticity noted by Heidegger's Dasein. As Nevis, Lancourt, and Vassallo put it, strapping wings on a caterpillar does not make it a butterfly!


So, what is happening? How does a school with limited capacity respond to increases in learning demand on its system, one which left unattended threatens to overwhelm its system? Why do reforms appear to bounce off such schools? The answer has nothing at all to do with the 'will and skill' of teachers and everything to do with the systemic frailties and assumptions which same-age organisation perpetuates. The same-age system is unable to develop its capacity for individual and organisational learning. It creates a structure that denies agency, limits communication, and prevents collaboration. It lacks the capacity to develop the complex information feedback loops from participating players (staff, students, and parents) needed for individual and organisational learning. Schools teach, they rarely learn.

To cope, therefore, the school as an entity unconsciously works to reduce the learning demand on its system, treating complexity as though it were merely complicated. Only the classroom matters, and this is a fatal, reductionist, systems-thinking error, one that perpetuates a structure that denies the agency of participating actors.

For three decades I have been working with secondary schools worldwide, schools searching for a second systems opinion, schools suspecting that their operative system is straying away from core values and betterment. To help school leaders develop the reflexivity needed to raise organisational consciousness, I invite school management teams to tell me about their school, how it works, their policies and practices. To facilitate this, I offer a transformative learning framework based on the core value of student care, parental collaboration, and trust in staff competency. I pose provocative questions with trigger warnings to help guide process reflections:

1. Does the school care about the students?

2. Does the school believe in parent partnership?

3. Does the school trust staff and believe in their competence?


Such questions have an intentional edge making school leaders feel affronted to be asked. The point of providing a degree of provocation, albeit in a safe environment, is to promote a more reflexive discussion, one leading to what Jack Mezirow calls disorientating dilemmas and Edgar Schein calls disconfirmation. As leadership teams start to examine their beliefs (mental maps), a significant reality gap emerges between policy rhetoric (what schools assume, and claim is happening) and policy reception (what happens in practice).

The answers provided by school leaders start off as being invariably the same (the initial non-reflective, low consciousness state). Schools are convinced that they care about students and point to myriad daily examples. All claim that parent partnership is critical to their school and point to the policies put in place – some schools even have partnership certificates! And of course, leaders trust their staff and their competence, pointing to middle leadership, appraisal schemes, training programmes, responsibilities. As the discussions continues, I mirror what is being claimed constructing an agreed operative picture of the school as they see it.

The next stage is to stress-test the school's worldview of their teaching and learning system, deconstructing the school, and exposing any operational assumptions. This involves asking questions (role-play) from the standpoint of staff, students, and parents to ascertain the nature of the school's communication system, one that should enable the complex feedback loops and relationships (claimed) needed for individual and organisational learning. The idea is to compare the rhetoric of the school with the lived experience of participant actors (staff, students, and parents) and measure the gap between the school's espoused world view as opposed to its theory in use. Readers will be aware of Argyris and Schon (1974), Dick and Dalmau (1990), and others. The revelation of such disorientating dilemmas creates the reflexivity schools need for transformative learning.

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About the Author

Peter is an ex school principal, consultant leader and widely recognised by schools as the national expert in school improvement in the UK. He has trained in China, UK, USA, and Germany.

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All articles by Peter Barnard

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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