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8 PROBLEMS WITH TOP-DOWN CHANGE IN SCHOOLS - AND HOW TO OVERCOME THEM

The short version

  • Schools are top-down places - typically, a senior leadership team makes decisions on behalf of the school community and then announces what’s going to happen.

  • Top-down change is really useful when swift, decisive action is required. However, for more complex school improvement initiatives, it often falls short.

  • There are many reasons for this. Here are 8:

    1. Black box leadership

    2. Human nature

    3. Consultation is often not meaningful

    4. Top-down change requires coercive methods where there is resistance

    5. People want to be seen to be compliant, rather than co-owning the change process

    6. Senior leaders are often not in role for long enough

    7. One-year leadership courses

    8. And the mother of all problems: groupthink.

  • The good news is that none of these problems are insurmountable, and the ‘Making Change Stick’ programme is designed to overcome each and every one of them.

  • The main way in which this happens is through the use of ‘vertical slice teams’. This will be the topic of next week’s post.


The long version with references and whatnot


Last week, we saw that the vast majority of school improvement initiatives fail to achieve their stated goals.


There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the main reason is this guy:


Figure 1. The top-down monster


Most schools are run by a ‘senior leadership team’ - a small group of people who sit at the ‘top’ of the organisation. These senior teams have lots of meetings where they make decisions about what needs to happen, and then they announce those decisions to the rest of the school community.


To be clear, such top-down implementation can be really useful. Sometimes, an issue calls for swift and immediate action and it would slow things down to consult the whole school community on every matter that arises.


For example, I used to work at a school where we had a significant problem with litter. By mid-morning, the playgrounds, corridors and even classrooms would be liberally scattered with discarded crisp packets, drinks cans and half-empty tubs of pasta salad. It really was less than ideal,


There has been lots of research done on the impact of such visual pollution on people's behaviour. and it is likely that the school's litter problem would have had an unpleasant ripple effect on the wider school community, such as the students’ sense of pride in and respect for the school.


One day, the senior team took decisive action. From that day forth, students would only be allowed to eat in the school canteen. Inevitably there were some initial grumbles, and teachers felt a bit pedantic issuing detentions for surreptitious slurps of energy drink on the school field. But the students soon adapted to the new regime - and the litter problem went away overnight.


We could point to many more examples where top-down change is effective and proportionate. However, when we’re dealing with more complex, multi-layered issues - things like:


  • increasing the consistency with which the whole-school behaviour policy is applied;

  • improving the ways in which teachers provide feedback to pupils about their work; or

  • closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers…


… as we have seen, top-down school improvement initiatives often fail to bring about the lasting, positive change they set out to achieve.



There are many reasons why top-down approaches to change management often fail to meet their stated goals when it comes to more complex school improvement initiatives.


Here are eight:

1. Black box leadership

Senior teams don’t tend to publish the minutes of their meetings. Instead, typically, they have meetings ‘behind closed doors’. As a result, the decision-making essentially takes place in a ‘black box’ that the rest of the school community cannot see into. Beyond the occasional staff survey or ‘consultation exercise’, teachers and support staff often do not feel like they can play a meaningful role in shaping whole-school decisions, and they feel that things are being ‘done to’ them. They don’t really feel that they have ownership over this aspect of their role, or feel motivated or energised to drive through the change process.


2. Human nature

Put simply: people don’t like having change ‘done to them’ - even when it’s a really good idea. There’s something about human nature. People - children and adults alike - don’t like being told what to do. It can make you feel powerless, and that’s not a nice feeling. Conversely, people really do seem to appreciate having a small amount of say over what they do, how and when. This need for autonomy becomes apparent at a very young age, when a parent tries to do something for their child and the child says ‘NO! ME DO IT!’ - and it remains evident as people progress into adulthood. There has been a huge amount of research on the role of autonomy in the workplace, which we can define as the pace at which work is completed, its order of completion, and a person's freedom to work without micromanagement. Researchers have consistently found that having a degree of autonomy in their work is more important than how much they are paid. For example, in one recent study, 59% of respondents reported that “flexibility” is more important to them than salary or other benefits. (1) Another found that the ability to ‘set your own schedule’ is equivalent to a 9% wage increase. (2) When used well, giving people autonomy in the workplace increases wellbeing, improves staff retention, and it increases productivity. It’s what you might call a win-win-win.


3. Consultation is often not authentic

Many school leaders understand the need to consult with various stakeholder groups before launching a whole-school policy initiative. But all too often, the consultation process is a hollow ‘listening exercise’ when in fact the key decisions have already been made. This can create resentment because people don’t feel like they’re really being listened to.


4. Top-down change requires coercive methods where there is resistance

This might take the form of a heavy-handed approach to performance management, or other high stakes accountability measures. We often refer to this style of leadership as 'strong-arm', or ‘my way or the highway’ - where a leader essentially says 'I'm the boss, this is my decision and if you don’t like it, you know where the door is.' This approach may be effective at suppressing a dissenting voice in the short-term. But it also tends to create a culture of fear, rather than an open-door culture of mutual support and trust where people can take risks and take steps to improve their practice without fear of repercussion.



5. People want to be seen to be compliant, rather than co-owning the change


What you really want is for everyone to get on board with a change initiative and to help drive it through. This might involve implementing new ideas, evaluating the impact on student learning and adapting their practice accordingly. But when change is implemented in a top-down way, people often aim simply for compliance. They merely want to be seen to be doing the right thing. Top-down approaches to change management therefore create a tick-box mentality and fail to harness the untold energy, enthusiasm and capacity for intelligent decision-making at the point of use that lies latent within any staff body.


6. Senior leaders are often not in role for long enough

Research reliably tells us that it takes 3 to 5 years to implement lasting, positive change in any large organisation. (3) However, senior leaders are often not in the same post for 3 to 5 years. Instead, they tend to rotate around different areas of responsibility, rather like government ministers - doing behaviour one year, teaching and learning the next, assessment the next. (4) Or perhaps they get promoted, or move to a different school.


When change is implemented in a top-down way and the people at the top move on, the change initiative they were working on tends to quietly collapse behind them. Then the next person comes along and launches their new pet initiative, and the whole cycle begins again. This can lead to a condition that goes by many names: initiative-itis, innovation fatigue (or fad-tigue), or 'this too shall pass' syndrome (a phrase muttered under many a teacher's breath as the next wheeze is announced).


Initiative-itis is horribly corrosive. It makes people skeptical and increasingly cynical about the idea that lasting, positive change is even possible.


7. One-year leadership courses


In order to become a school leader in England and Wales, you usually need to have completed a National Professional Qualification (NPQ). At the time of writing, there are four ‘leadership’ NPQs (senior leadership, headship, executive headship and early years leadership) and four ‘specialist’ NPQs (leading teacher development, leading teaching, leading behaviour and culture and leading literacy).


Each NPQ requires the participant to carry out an implementation project, usually over a 12-month period. However, as we have seen, it often takes 3 to 5 years to bring about lasting, positive change in a large organisation like a school. It is therefore unlikely that a 12-month course is sufficient preparation for a role that requires 3 to 5 years to see a change initiative through to successful implementation.


These ‘implementation projects’ are often undermined by the very fact that they are required in order to complete the NPQ. Anecdotally, I have heard many teachers express scepticism toward a school improvement initiative driven by an aspiring leader because ‘they’re just doing it so they can pass their course’. ‘This too shall pass’ syndrome strikes again.


8. The mother of all problems: Groupthink


This is the widespread and well-documented phenomenon whereby a desire for harmony or conformity among groups leads to bad decision-making. We’ve known about groupthink for over 50 years now, but we have yet to learn the lesson in terms of how we organise decision-making in the public sphere. (5)


Whenever you get a group of like-minded people sitting around the decision-making table together - even when those people are all highly intelligent and well-qualified - you often get bad decision-making because of weird group dynamics.


For example, let’s say a headteacher stands at the front of the hall and announces that the school is going to replace detentions with restorative conversations. A teacher or member of the support staff might immediately think ‘Hmmm. We did this at my last school and it went horribly wrong. I really don’t think we should make the same mistake here. Or at least, we shouldn't do it in this way’.


However, that person probably doesn’t want to raise their hand in a whole-school meeting and contradict or undermine their boss - partly because it would be awkward and embarrassing to do so, and partly because contradicting your boss in a public forum might not be the best way to advance your career. And so they bite their tongue: perfectly understandable.


However, this tendency - for people to avoid conflict in the interest of group harmony, or self-preservation, leads to bad decision-making. People don’t explore all the available evidence.


Highly intelligent, well-qualified people don’t often want to be seen to be asking ‘stupid questions’. But ‘stupid questions’ are often the most important questions to ask. Because when someone says: ‘Can I ask a stupid question?’, what they often really mean is: ‘Am I missing something here, or is this a terrible idea?’



How can we overcome these problems?


These are just a few of the problems associated with top-down change. The good news is that none of these problems are insurmountable, and the ‘Making Change Stick’ programme is designed to overcome each and every one of them.


The main way in which this happens is through the use of ‘vertical slice teams’. This will be the topic of next week’s post.


In the mean-time, if you'd like to access a free 10-part taster course, you can do so here.

References

  1. Reisinger, H. & Fetterer, D. (2021) Forget Flexibility. Your employees want autonomy. Harvard Business Review, October 20. Available at: https://hbr.org/2021/10/forget-flexibility-your-employees-want-autonomy

  2. Maestas, N., Mullen, K.J., Powell, D., von Wachter, T. & Wenger, J.B. (2018) The Value of Working Conditions in the United States and Implications for the Structure of Wages. National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 25204: 22.

  3. Kotter, J.P. (1995). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/1995/05/leading-change-why-transformation-efforts-fail-2. See also Hill, A., Mellon, L., Laker, B. & Goddard, J. (2017) Research: How the Best School Leaders Create Enduring Change. Harvard Business Review, Sept 14. Available at: https://hbr.org/2017/09/research-how-the-best-school-leaders-create-enduring-change.

  4. In the UK in 2009, the average cabinet minister was in post for 1.3 years - a figure that is likely to have decreased in the intervening years. See Cleary, H & Reeves, R. (2009). The ‘culture of churn’ for UK Ministers and the price we all pay. DEMOS: Research briefing. June 12. Available at: https://www.demos.co.uk/files/Ministerial_Churn.pdf.

  5. Janis, I. (1972). Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascos. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.


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