Sunday, 14 February 2016

The Biology of School Survival

Last weekend I had the huge privilege of attending the Canons Park Teaching School Alliance conference.  Keven Bartle and Emlyn Lumley gave a fascinating presentation on 'Chaos, complexity and ecological system leaders' and how schools are going to have to respond to an environment of increasing complexity with schools being complex adaptive systems (CAS).   In this post, I will draw upon Reeves, Leving & Ueda's recent article in the Harvard Business Review  (Jan-Feb 2016) to examine in more detail; first, what is meant by a complex adaptive system; second,  how school leaders can attempt to increase resilience within a complex adaptive system; third, some of the limitations of Reeves et al's model when applied to a school-setting.

What is a complex adaptive system?

Reeves at al state that like biological species, companies are 'complex adaptive systems' that continually evolve in hard-to-predict ways.  Local interactions cascade and reshape the entire system; the new structure then influences individual agents - people - resulting in further changes in the system.

They go onto argue that these systems ... are often nested in broader systems.  A populations is a CAS nested in a natural eco-sytems, which itself is nested in a broader biological environment.  So a school is a CAS which is nested within the overall school ecosystem, the education ecosystem, as well as the broader societal system.  As such, not only is there complexity within a school's boundaries, there is tensions between an individual schools and the wider school system-wide ecosystem. As such,what may be good for an individual school may not be good for the broader ecosystem of schools.

Reeves et al argue that there are three broad implications for business leaders, which I will adapt for a school setting.
  1. School leaders need to be realistic about what they can predict and control - both within the school and outside of the school. 
  2. School leaders need to look beyond their own schools and ensure that their schools contribute positively to the school system as a whole, particularly if they are receiving benefits from the system as a whole.
  3. School leaders need to embrace the inconvenient truth that attempts to staff may have negative unintended consequences, which may threaten the school itself.
How can school leaders increase resilience in schools within a complex adaptive system?

Reeves et al identify six principles which can be applied, which may increase the resilience of an organisation (school).  However, they make clear these principles may be in tension with one another and that prioritising one principle may lead to the de-proritisation of another.  As such, Reeves et al argue that the six principles should be seen as a set, which are applied collectively rather than seeing each principle as a standalone strategy or tactic.  With that in mind, we will now examine each of these six principles.

Maintain heterogeneity

School leaders need to ensure their schools are diverse only three axes : people, ideas and endeavours. One way of doing is to hire people from a range of backgrounds, educational qualifications and personality,  and which may be inevitable given the current recruitment crisis.  However, recruiting a diverse range of  individuals, is not enough.  Those individuals need to be given the permission to express their opinions, develop new initiatives and sometimes, to fail.  A safety-first approach - trying to play 'error free football' - may ironically lead to the school becoming even more fragile.


In the past there has been much talk about whole-school and integrated approaches. However, it may be necessary to design a school, multi-academy trust or academy chain as a modular system, which will prevent shocks from moving from one part of the system to another.  Yet one of the problems with a modular system is that it potentially gets in the way of networking and collaborative activity.  It may be tempting to increase levels of integration for purposes of integrations, but in increasing interdependence it also leads to an increase in risk.


In systems with redundancy, different aspects of the system often have overlapping roles.  So if one part of the system fails, another part of the system can pick up the slack and carry-out the role.  In the current environment, built in redundancy could be seen as a sign of bloated and inefficient school or organisation.  However, schools are always experiencing shocks - be it new unexpected intitiatives, unanticipated staff turnover or absence -  and there needs to be capacity within the school or MAT to be able to respond to these shocks.

Expect surprise, but reduce uncertainty

In complex adaptive system it is not possible to predict the future shape of the organisation/school.  However, it is possible to spot 'signals', for example, changing patterns of enrolments with feeder schools, changing patterns of pupil applications, changing numbers applications for posts to responsibility - and begin to imagine possible scenarios, and in doing so identify the action to be taken to maximise opportunity and minimise risk.  Reeves et al argue that there are a number of practices which could be adopted:
  • Schools may need to accept that a currently successful business model, will at some stage be superseded by some alternative.  Indeed, ways of working that may have been successful in delivering 5 GCSES (inc E&M) at C and above, may not work in the world of the EBacc
  • Understand that change comes from the periphery - with incomers having no choice but to do something different to the current dominant players - this can be seen in the way that 'free schools' operate
  • Identify the signals from the activities of those organisations and schools who are in effect betting against your continued success - in other words, how well are the scrappy insurgents doing compared to your more established way of working
  • Practice contingent thinking - if 'fair funding" becomes a reality - what are you going to do about it. How will it impact upon your way of working and school structures.
  • Finally, if possible,  reduce  the threat or idea, by acquiring it or building defences against it.
Now given the context of schools - they key things to do would appear to be to try and spot the signals and engage in contingent thinking

Create feedback loops and adaptive mechanisms

Often the signals that school-leaders may need to be aware that what may be 'hitting' the school, is doing so at some 'organisational' distance from the senior leadership team.  With that in mind - school senior leaders need to engage in real and genuine dialogue with front-line staff - be it school administrators, caretakers, teaching assistants, teachers and others - to keep in in touch with what is happening on the ground.  Second, it's not enough just to get the feedback, it's necessary to act upon it. Reeves talks about out organisations (and schools) having to be ambidextrous - i.e the ability to run the existing school, whilst at the same time reinventing the school in response to the new environment.

Foster trust and reciprocity

Complex adaptive systems require co-operation if they are to survive.  The interests of different schools with a MAT or TSA  or staff who work in them may at times be in conflict.  However, if schools and individuals purse their own interests - then then system as a whole becomes weaker.  Incentives need to be put in place to foster trust and reciprocity.  One way might be ensure that promotion opportunities are given to colleagues who an can not only lead their functional area but contribute to the good of the system as a whole.  The flip side of this - is no matter how 'good' a HOD maybe in leading their department - if this is at the cost of the school as whole, other actions may need to be taken.

Limitations of the model

Keven Bartle kindly reviewed this post before publication and suggested that Reeves et al's model has a number of limitations within a school setting.  Keven argues : One of the inherent tensions in the Reeves approach (and of leveraging complexity in a school environment generally) is that it rather assumes that the leader can see the whole leadership landscape of the school ecology from the outside, as some kind of impartial objective observer and coordinate the very different dynamics to organisational effect. In doing so there is almost the assumption that leadership is a fixed property in charge of the non-fixed properties of agency and interaction and so forth. In doing so it possibly risks reifying the notion of heroic leadership even as it suggests the opposite is true elsewhere in the organisational architecture. 

Perhaps this is inevitable in hierarchical organisations, or maybe there's something that needs to underpin this about the need to de-leader oneself that comes before the "headteacher needs to ensure THEIR schools" bit of the post. It may be fraught with inherent contradictions but such is the nature of chaos and complexity. The key bit before anything else is accepting paradoxes (including the unleading leader). If I follow this logic all the way then it leads to a position that is utterly cooperative in which "OUR school" replaces "MY school" in every element of the hierarchical leadership domains, recruitment (people), professional development (ideas) and strategic planning (actions).  (private email correspondence)

And finally ....

If we accept the notion of the school being a complex adaptive system, being nested in a range of other systems, then this probably has a number of implications for headteachers and senior teams in how they go about their work leading their schools.  Reeves et al may not have all the answers or even the beginning of the questions, but they do provide at the very least is both a framework and agenda for discussion, both within and between schools.