Working with Complexity in School Leadership

Posted on November 11, 2017

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Today saw the end of our Teaching School Alliance’s first iteration of our programme ‘Working with Complexity in School Leadership’. After six Saturday morning sessions across 2017, the six members of our first cohort bade farewell to one another at the conclusion of what, for me, has been the most interesting and enjoyable CPDL of which I’ve ever been a part. This post is my attempt to make sense of it for myself and for the participants, with whom I will share it in the hope that they too might write about it now that the group has ‘stopped’. 

The idea

The inspiration for the programme was twofold: on the one hand a rejection of typical leadership courses and, on the other hand, a positive embrace of an approach to thinking about leadership that I hope will offer a more ‘authentic’ opportunity for participants in making sense of their daily interactions as school leaders. I am not going to dwell on the first of these but, instead, let my thoughts about the second lead the reader to whatever conclusions they wish to draw about the first. 

Having spent much time in recent years thinking about the implications of Complexity theory for my own work, I serendipitously ended up reading a piece by Professor Chris Mowles of the University of Hertfordshire’s Business School that had been shared with me by Emlyn Lumley, the Head of Park High School in Stanmore, which is the co-lead school of our alliance.  He had been given it as part of his MBA studies with UH and it helped move me away from thinking about schools as Complex Adaptive Systems and instead as places where interdependent individuals are engaged in multiple interactions that are thoroughly social: as places where Complex Responsive Processes are played out on a daily basis. I won’t go into the theory here but, if this post resonates with you, do look it up and do get in touch via my twitter account, @kevbartle. 

Having set up our alliance to look away from the already crowded leadership development landscape of NPQs and Aspiring… courses, Emlyn and I quickly came to the conclusion that we would like to ‘experiment’ with running our own programme dealing with complexity in the education workplace. With this in mind, we contacted Chris and asked if he would be kind enough to guide us in doing so. He agreed and we met at length after work on two occasions to work out what would be the best format for doing so.

The format

We decided that an iterative programme would be needed that would span a whole year. Initially our thoughts were that this would be over an academic year, but delays meant that we ended up settling on the idea of running it over a calendar year instead, which proved to add an extra dimension which I will explain later. Six sessions were identified, one in each half term, and each took place on a Saturday morning between 9am and 1pm. 

Within this we decided that we wanted to do two things in each session. For the first half we wanted to ‘teach’ participants an aspect of complexity theory, and that to do so we would approach academics in the field who we hoped would be willing to give up their own time to help us. Chris put us in touch with five people he knew and each of them jumped at the chance. We could not be more grateful to them for their altruism in doing so. 

For the second half of each session we wanted participants to share with each other a “wicked problem” or “thorny issue” with which they were wrestling in their professional lives.  For the first session each of them trialled doing so. Before the second, third and fourth sessions (ie prior to the summer break) different individuals from the cohort wrote up their issue, circulated it to the group, explained it at the session and then discussed it with their peers, which Emlyn and I coordinated using our layman’s understanding of group analysis. For the final two sessions (ie after the summer break) each participant revisited their issue to see how their thoughts, actions and interactions had evolved in light of their paying attention to the issue and the gestures and responses with others at school. 

The participants

Because of the nature of the programme we wanted the cohort to be small but committed, and so we settled on just six participants. This would maximise the time each would have to explore their issue and ensure that they were able to contribute fully to the issues shared by others. In the end only two sessions were missed by cohort members, one for a wedding known in advance and one for maternity. We also wanted each of the six to come from different schools so that they could share freely with one another in full confidentiality. 

This was a course for school leaders, but we did not have any specific level of leadership in mind and so participants included a Head, a Deputy, two Assistants, an Associate and a SENCO. In cohort two middle leaders, and perhaps others, will also be welcome, as the issues are relevant to all of those holding positions which give them responsibility for the welfare of other adults in a school context.  

One key element, and a core requirement, of the participants was that they had to be open to this different approach to leadership development and so we sent them all an overview of the programme to mull over before they committed, and we responded to any queries they had whilst doing so. In the end we had each of the first six people we approached agree that this was something they thought would be relevant for their needs. 

The sessions

Chris agreed to lead the first session in order to outline the basis of our approach to participants in the first ‘taught’ section and then to demonstrate to Emlyn and I how group analysis works in practice during the second section. The six participants and, importantly (I think), Emlyn and I shared our early thinking about potential issues we would explore during the course of the programme. Opening up in this way within a group of strangers was not a little daunting, but the willingness of the participants to embrace a complexity approach meant that it went as well as we could have hoped and set the tone for the five sessions that followed. 

For the remainder of the programme, we welcomed five new strangers from the world of academia. Each one brought a different strand of conceptual thinking about complexity with them but, at least just as importantly, each fully engaged with the group, allowing us to probe their thinking and acting (increasingly so as the programme went on), and each of them feeling comfortable in doing so with us. We had said that they could come and ‘teach’ and then leave before the sharing session but it was a testimony to both them and the group that every one of them chose to stay for the duration. 

After session one, the sharing sections of the days were led, on an alternating basis, by Emlyn and I. I can’t speak for him, but leading my first session gave me an incredible amount of nerves. Asking people I didn’t know well to share their innermost professional concerns was worrying enough, but knowing that we had to guide the conversations to ensure that we weren’t problem-solving for them or over-supporting them as if this was group therapy was truly daunting. Paying attention to what their issues were ‘calling out’ in ourselves, and in doing so to avoid projecting our own insecurities, was a third layer of responsibility for us. I hope that we managed this well enough for them. 

After each session, Chris skyped with us to enable us to reflect upon what had happened, how we felt about it, what we needed to reflect upon ahead of the next session, what potential problems might emerge within the group and how we might respond to them. His interest in what we were doing was as important to us as his expertise and for this I cannot thank him enough.  

The issues

Obviously, for the sake of confidentiality, I can’t share the specific issues we have discussed during the course of the year but, as time passed, what became apparent was that they were not role specific and that each participant could identify with some, most or even all of the others being raised. They concerned interactions with those hierarchically above, below or level with the participants themselves and, in some cases, reflected the challenges of being a part of the ‘squeezed middle’ where issues with line managers are echoed in issues with those we line manage. 

We had made it clear to participants that the one thing this programme could not promise was solutions to these problems, just the opportunity to share them, think about them and to hear others’ thoughts about them. This is something that school leaders generally don’t have the chance to do and a consequence of this approach was that they were able to fully consider their own responses to the gestures of others that were at the core of their issues. In particular, they had the space and support (through challenge) to consider how these responses followed patterns which have recurred throughout their professional lives and how they reflected the power dynamics of which they are a part. 

Toward the end of the programme, the most interesting element was the revisiting of the issues at the start of a new academic year. Hearing from participants how the ‘paying attention to’ aspect of the course had affected and/or been reflected in their professional lives was intriguing and gives us hope that the ‘experiment’ of running this programme was worth it, and worth continuing with. Naturally, some felt that they had made huge headway during that time and this is good, but it was not the point of what we were doing. At least one of the participants reminded us that the ‘gains’ we think we have made can easily feel like losses with just one more problematic interaction. 

What was more powerful, at least for me (I can’t speak for others), was that some of the initial issues had pivoted during the course of the year, indicating that ‘paying attention’ to one thing might make us look differently – perhaps more problematically – at another that had previously seemed unproblematic. But what I hope that participants have gained through this process, which has certainly been reflected in my own professional life as we have been doing this, is that it is by continuing to ‘pay attention’ that we might find our way around the next challenge, and the next, and then next. 

The response

I am delighted by the response of those ‘guinea pig’ colleagues who joined us for this first cohort. They have fully and openly engaged with this way of working. The professional conversations that we have shared in 2017 have been amongst the most profound I have witnessed in my career. 

But I will let them explain how they feel about it and will publish the results here once they have emailed me their thoughts.

The future

We are fully committed to running this programme again over 2018 and are in the process of revising the information to send to potential participants in light of the responses from the first cohort.  As with this year’s group we can’t promise solutions and there is no formal qualification or certificate that comes from participation, but for those who are open to this way of working and thinking about things, we think that they will find value in the ‘Working with Complexity in School Leadership’ programme. 

As for the 2017 cohort, we have said goodbye to them as a group today. We will check in with them in six months time to find out how they have got on since the programme ended. I suspect some of them will stay in touch with one another and hope that at least one of them will explore further the theory behind Complex Responsive Processes, perhaps even through a formal process of study.  

What I hope for is that each of them continue (or begin) to make headway on the issues with which they have wrestled this year and that their ‘paying attention’ will give them some benefits in wrestling with the whole other set of issues they will face in the future. School leadership is a messy and complex business that will never conform to any plans we set for it, and human relationships and interactions are the reasons for much of the messiness and complexity. Not only can we not eliminate this, but nor should we aspire to do so, in my opinion. Instead, these messy and complex relationships and interactions are the very business of the utterly interdependent and thoroughly social business of education and educational leadership. As they move on from being members of this group I wish them all – Jennie, Alice, Gaye, Kristian, Jen and Kathryn – every success in how they respond to this. 


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