Using complexity theory to understand the problematic nature of performance management in schools in England

Melissa Hawkins*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Problem statement and aim
Performance management and appraisal (PM) has developed into widespread practice across schools in England since its formal introduction in 1991. Yet despite its statutory status as an integral policy, there is a lack of research and subsequent understanding (both empirically and theoretically) in how PM is conceived, perceived, and enacted by teachers in schools. The purpose of this thesis has been to address these difficulties by examining and theorising how school PM is conceptualised, rationalised, and operationalized, as well as identifying the specific problematics of PM in schools.

Literature Review
A problematising literature review sought to uncover the underlying assumptions of how PM is conceptualised, rationalised, and operationalised across sectors, and found that there are two divergent interpretations. The prevalent (dominant) discourse is what this thesis names a Reductionist Discourse, which assumes the concept of performance is onedimensional and uncontested, that the purpose of PM is primarily to control actions and to hold people to account for outcomes, and PM processes are reductionist and focused on accountability rather than developmentally oriented. Complexity theory was found to provide a strong critique of taking a Reductionist Discourse, in addition to providing an alternative discourse of PM. This Complexity Discourse conceptualises performance as multi-dimensional and fluid, the primary rationale of PM is to support development of people, and PM processes are designed to foreground opportunities for learning.

The problematising review culminated in the crystallisation of three research questions for this thesis:

1. How can complexity theory be utilised as a conceptual framework? This question considers how to draw on complexity theory to explore PM practice in schools.
2. How is performance management conceptualised, rationalised, and operationalised by teachers in schools?

This question seeks to explore the link between how PM has been researched across sectors in theory, and how it applies to current PM practice in schools.

3. What are the problematics of school performance management in practice and why are they problematic?

This question seeks to understand the problematics of school performance management practice through using complexity theory as a conceptual framework.

Complexity as a conceptual framework
Complexity theory was found to show promise in problematising a Reductionist Discourse to PM, in addition to providing an alternative, a Complexity Discourse. However, it was also discovered that complexity theory has a number of flaws, such as disciplinary fragmentation, difficulties translating concepts and ideas across disciplines, and limited application in educational policy and practice. A meta-ethnography was chosen as a method as it was able to utilise the strengths and address the weaknesses of complexity theory by synthesising and translating concepts from key theorists’ research on complex systems. The resultant framework, named as the Complexity Explanatory Framework, was then able to be used to explain the problematics of PM in schools, as well as offering methods to navigate such problematics.

Empirical research
This thesis selected an empirical research design to answer research questions two and three, in response to the paucity of recent research into examples of practice and associated issues related to PM's implementation in schools. To collect empirical data, semi-structured active interviews were conducted with 15 teachers working across seven schools in England (primary and secondary, state-maintained and academy). In addition, school policy documents on performance management were collected and analysed alongside the empirical data. Both sources of data provided examples of how schools approached PM at the policy level, alongside teacher interpretations of the problematics of PM practice in their schools.

The following findings were found through the analysis of the empirical data. Firstly, that complexity theory can be usefully synthesised into an explanatory framework. It was found that the features, implications, and requirements of complex systems could be used to explain why PM in schools can be problematic, and also to offer ways in which to navigate such problematics. Secondly, Schools can take three discourses to PM: a reductionist, a complexity, or a blend of both. These three approaches demonstrates that there can be a disconnect between research and practice, as it is often implied by the research that PM falls into two dichotomous and opposing approaches. However, in practice, there can be overlap between the two. Thirdly, it was theorised that performance management is unavoidably problematic as schools are complex systems. All schools contended with problems and a total of 12 key problematics were identified. All three discourses (reductionist, complexity and blended) contended with problematics, although it was also found that schools who took a Blended Discourse seemed to encounter less problems.

Contributions include adapting a method of qualitative synthesis, a meta-ethnography, so that complexity theory can be strengthened for use as a conceptual framework. Other contributions have been to use complexity to add to understanding and theorising of similarities and differences between research and practice into PM, to explain why PM in schools can be problematic, and to offer methods to navigate such problematics. Practicebased contributions offer both empirical evidence and methods for practitioners to explore and critically reflect on the processes and problematics of all three approaches to PM.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
  • Fertig, Michael, Supervisor, External person
  • Mifsud, Denise , Supervisor, External person
  • French, Max, Supervisor
Award date28 Jun 2023
Place of PublicationBath
Publication statusUnpublished - 28 Jun 2023
Externally publishedYes

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