The art of change management in schools – complex and not straightforward
16 June 2009
Although the education sector has experienced significant changes in recent years and fears have frequently been voiced about ‘initiative overload’ affecting staff, new research from NFER shows that they are generally positive about change and their capacity to cope with it.
The question of how schools engage with change, and how they compare with the health, local government and police sectors in managing change, is at the core of Change Engagement: Comparative Study which was commissioned by the Training and Development Agency for Schools.
The way in which change is managed is clearly viewed as a complex issue that evolves and adapts to suit circumstances. It is not straightforward; as a Head of English in a secondary school said: "I don’t think the management of change is a science, it’s an art, so I don’t think there is a formula for it." However, school (and other public sector) leaders have an increasingly sophisticated understanding of change and all recognise that ‘change is everybody’s job now’.
In general, senior school leaders, teachers and support staff are largely positive about the need for change and are mainly optimistic about their capacity to deal with it. At the same time there is recognition that the amount, scope and pace of change has increased in recent years. Overburdening - the perception that there are too many initiatives and lack of time - is seen as the main barrier to implementing and sustaining change.
Different types of schools face different challenges and networking between schools (and other organisations) that are facing similar challenges is an important way of learning about change.
Successful implementation and control of change rely on strong and effective leadership and a clear school vision. Engaging the committed support and involvement of staff is also crucial for success and is a way of releasing additional capacity to manage change effectively. However, the research shows that about half of teachers and support staff feel that they are informed, rather than consulted, and on the whole they reported feeling less involved in the whole process than their senior managers perceived them to be; a quarter of teachers and a third of support staff would like more involvement in planning change.
Comparison with other public sectors
There is a great deal of similarity in change challenges and priorities facing schools and the other public sector organisations, despite differences in function, degree of autonomy of local organisations, and roles. Managers in the other sectors are coming under considerable pressure to deliver efficiencies; schools may face challenges in this area in the future and could learn from them.
School leaders have more of a perception of ‘control’ over change than leaders in other sectors, perhaps reflecting the traditional ‘autonomy’ of a headteacher, and this presents opportunities for schools, especially those that have a strong sense of purpose and direction and are already high performing.
However, managers in the comparative sectors report having made more progress in some areas, particularly in working with partners to achieve major change. Although partnership working clearly takes place between schools, working with other services may be a growing change driver, and another area where schools could learn from the other sectors.
NFER’s Peter Rudd said: The really interesting finding from this study is that, contrary to some popular perceptions, school staff are not against change. They are more than happy to implement changes, including new initiatives, provided that there is a clear rationale for them and that they are fully consulted about the proposed changes".
Notes to editors
The research was carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in collaboration with the Office for Public Management.
The central aim of the research was to inform the Training and Development Agency for Schools’ programme of strategic performance assessment in the key area of supporting modernisation.
The main research methods used were:
A concise literature review which focused on change management in each of the four sectors
A small number of strategic level interviews in each sector
A large scale school survey of schools leaders, teachers and support staff
Fifty qualitative telephone interviews with school leaders
Telephone interviews with 129 senior managers in the health, local government and police sectors.