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The Limitations of Formal Models

15 January, 2016 - 09:23
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The various formal models pervade much of the literature on educational management.

    They are normative approaches in that they present ideas about how people in organizations ought to behave. Levacic et al (1999) argue that these assumptions underpin the educational reforms of the 1990s, notably in England:

    A major development in educational management in the last decade has been much greater emphasis on defining effective leadership by individuals in management posts in terms of the effectiveness of their organisation, which is increasingly judged in relation to measurable outcomes for students . . . This is argued to require a rational-technicist approach to the structuring of decision-making. (p. 15)

    There are five specific weaknesses associated with formal models:

  1. It may be unrealistic to characterize schools and colleges as goal-oriented organizations. It is often difficult to ascertain the goals of educational institutions. Formal objectives may have little operational relevance because they are often vague and general, because there may be many different goals competing for resources, and because goals may emanate from individuals and groups as well as from the leaders of the organisation.Even where the purposes of schools and colleges have been clarified, there are further problems in judging whether objectives have been achieved. Policy-makers and practitioners often rely on examination performance to assess schools but this is only one dimension of the educational process.
  2. The portrayal of decision-making as a rational process is fraught with difficulties. The belief that managerial action is preceded by a process of evaluation of alternatives and a considered choice of the most appropriate option is rarely substantiated. Much human behaviour is irrational and this inevitably influences the nature of decision-making in education. Weick (1976, p. 1), for example, asserts that rational practice is the exception rather than the norm.
  3. Formal models focus on the organization as an entity and ignore or underestimate the contribution of individuals. They assume that people occupy preordained positions in the structure and that their behaviour reflects their organizational positions rather than their individual qualities and experience. Greenfield (1973) has been particularly critical of this view (see the discussion of subjective models, below). Samier (2002, p. 40) adopts a similar approach, expressing concern “about the role technical rationality plays in crippling the personality of the bureaucrat, reducing him [sic] to a cog in a machine.”
  4. A central assumption of formal models is that power resides at the apex of the pyramid. Principals possess authority by virtue of their positions as the appointed leaders of their institutions. This focus on official authority leads to a view of institutional management which is essentially top down. Policy is laid down by senior managers and implemented by staff lower down the hierarchy. Their acceptance of managerial decisions is regarded as unproblematic. Organizations with large numbers of professional staff tend to exhibit signs of tension between the conflicting demands of professionalism and the hierarchy. Formal models assume that leaders, because they are appointed on merit, have the competence to issue appropriate instructions to subordinates. Professional organizations have a different ethos with expertise distributed widely within the institution. This may come into conflict with professional authority.
  5. Formal approaches are based on the implicit assumption that organizations are relatively stable. Individuals may come and go but they slot into predetermined positions in a static structure. “Organisations operating in simpler and more stable environments are likely to employ less complex and more centralised structures, with authority, rules and policies as the primary vehicles for coordinating the work” (Bolman & Deal, 1997, p. 77). Assumptions of stability are unrealistic in contemporary schools. March and Olsen (1976, p.21) are right to claim that “Individuals find themselves in a more complex, less stable and less understood world than that described by standard theories of organisational choice.”