To read this content please select one of the options below:

Multi-age organisation, complexity theory and secondary school reform

Peter Alexander Barnard (Education and Health, Middlesex University, London, UK)

International Journal of Educational Management

ISSN: 0951-354X

Article publication date: 29 April 2021

Issue publication date: 21 June 2021




At a time when many education systems are grappling with the issue of school reform, there is a concern that traditional UK secondary schools are organised in a way that makes them unable to respond to increasingly complex environmental demands. This research-based paper uses complexity theory to gauge the organisational differences between (1) the traditional model of schooling based on same-age organisation and (2) a form of organisation based on multi-age tutor groups, one that schools call a vertical tutoring (VT) system. The intention is to highlight the organisational changes made by schools that choose to transition from their same-age iteration to the VT system, and expose organisational assumptions in the dominant same-age structure that may account for the failure of reform.


The author's consultancy and research work spans two decades, and includes around 200 UK secondary schools, and others in China, Japan, South Africa, Australia, Qatar, Germany and Colombia. This conceptual paper draws on the recorded discourse and critical reflections of leadership teams during programmes of transformative learning, the process involved in the transition from one system to another. Using descriptions of school organisation abstracted from the complexity literature, differences in the two models not otherwise apparent, come into sharp focus. These not only reveal a substantive connection between organisation, complexity, and individual and organisational learning, but offer insights into the challenge of school reform.


Same-age organisations act in ways that regulate and restrict the agency of participating actors (staff, students and parents). The effect is to reduce a school’s learning capacity and ability to absorb the value demand on its system. Such a system is closed and non-complex. VT schools construct an open and fluid learning system from the base, deregulating agency. By unfreezing their structure, they intervene in processes of power, necessitating the distribution of leadership to the organisational edge, a process of complexification. The form of organisation chosen by a school explains the failure of reform.


Insights from VT schools cast considerable doubt on the viability of traditional same-age structures to serve complex societies and communities, while highlighting the critical role played by complexity theory in organisational praxis. If correct, the current emphasis on teacher “will and skill”, curricular editing, pedagogy and the “what works agenda” will be insufficient to bring about reformational change and more likely to contribute to systemic stasis.



Barnard, P.A. (2021), "Multi-age organisation, complexity theory and secondary school reform", International Journal of Educational Management, Vol. 35 No. 5, pp. 955-968.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited

Related articles