Our study shows that the case study schools work with a wide variety of schedules, indicating that their clusters of organization routines differ extensively. We found distinctively different types of responses to the three concurrent government policies in the data. These can be categorized into five types: four of which fit our initial conceptual framework, ranging from no change at all to changes that affect the entire cluster of routines, including the interfaces that stitch routines together (see “Conceptual framework” Section), and fifth, the response of symbolic change that emerged from the data.
Wide variety of schedules
Clusters of organization routines differ widely across Dutch secondary schools, and the variety of schedules in the case study schools testifies to this. Apart from tracks and streams, aspects of time and rhythm also differed in the thirteen secondary schools (see Appendix A). For example, while a lesson lasts 45 min in School H1, a lesson can be more than double that length in School C1. Moreover, the maximum number of different subjects scheduled on any given day varies between six and ten. Schedules also differ in the steadiness of their rhythm. In School C2, for example, the first lesson is scheduled for 100 min while all other lessons last half that time, in a rhythm that is similar for all days of the week. In Schools F1 and F2, lessons are 50 min for four days of the week and 45 min for one day of the week, in a rhythm that repeats itself every week. Different still is School A1, which also works with days of shorter lessons but does so only occasionally and without much of a rhythm.
In addition, the case study schools have very different practices for learning activities such as projects and internships. While these learning activities are standard practice in some schools and show up as designated timeslots every week or every semester, they lack altogether in other schools. A good example is community service during the 2014–15 school year, which was compulsory. Some schools schedule it as a project, in which case all students of a year group are engaged in community service simultaneously. Other schools put it on the schedule but allow students to choose when to conduct the service. Still, other schools make the service compulsory as required but do not put it on the schedule, which means that students must conduct the service in their own free time.
Responses to the central government policies
The five distinctly different responses of schools to the policies are summarized in Table 1 below (Appendix C provides details about each schools’ response to each policy). We illustrate the categories in turn with examples from the case study schools.
Type 1: No change. A school deliberately makes no changes in response to a policy and retains already established practices.
We found this response predominantly for the civics policy: while the obligation and funding for community service were abolished, ten case study schools continued their practices. Only one school chose this response for another policy: School I2 made no changes in response to the policy on literacy.
Type 2: Symbolic change (gaming). A school changes its practices on paper in response to a policy, but the daily practice does not change.
This response was added to our initial framework to categorize a particular case properly. School E1’s initial response to the numeracy test was no change. However, after the Inspectorate visited the school, voicing criticism about students’ lacking opportunities to learn numeracy skills, the school replaced one lunch hour with a numeracy lesson in the written schedule. The school explained to the Inspectorate that students who struggled with numeracy had the opportunity to improve their skills through self-study during that hour. This written adaptation and explanation satisfied the Inspectorate. However, the interviews left no doubt that actual practices remained the same.
Type 3: Change of a single routine, no change at the cluster level. A school responds to policy demands by changing learning activities of specific lessons, but without it affecting the schedule. The distinction with Type 1 cannot be made from documents and is based on interviews with teachers.
Seven of the case study schools responded to the literacy policy in this way. In all of these schools, subject teachers of Dutch language adapted the learning activities during their lessons. In School F1, for example, more time was spent on grammar and spelling at the expense of drama. School I2 responded similarly to the numeracy policy by integrating numeracy skills more extensively into subject lessons for economics and mathematics. In all these cases, the schools’ adaptation is ‘contained’ at the level of a single organization routine. Although practices for a few teachers during specific lessons are adapted, this does not affect the schedule, which indicates that the cluster of routines remains the same. For example, the allocation of hours across teachers remains the same, practices of other teachers are unaffected, the grouping of students is unchanged and assigning students and teachers to spaces is untouched.
Type 4: Change at the cluster level, no change in interfaces. A school’s response affects the schedule, or the cluster level of organization routines, implying that several routines are involved. The data reveal examples of this type of change for all three policies, albeit in slightly different forms. For the numeracy policy six schools responded like this, five of which introduced numeracy as a new subject adding lessons to the schedule with the result that students have more lessons every week. This is an adaptation at the cluster level of routines, as it involves hiring new numeracy teachers, joint meetings and consultations between numeracy teachers and support staff, coordination across subjects, and allocation of students and teachers to spaces. The response of the sixth school, School B1, is somewhat ambiguous: this school also introduced a new numeracy subject but replaced ‘choice hours’ with compulsory numeracy lessons so that for students the total number of lessons remained the same. We categorize this response as type 4 also because it involves other routines in much the same way: School B1 also hired new teachers, saw coordination across subjects affected, and allocated students and teachers differently across spaces.
For the literacy policy, four schools responded by type 4 change, all of which increased the number of lessons for Dutch language on the schedule, resulting in students attending school longer. Although these schools did not introduce an entirely new subject, as was the case for numeracy, much of the impact was similar: for example, schools hired new teachers and teaching assistants, meetings of Dutch language teachers were affected, the allocation of students and teachers to spaces had to be adapted. In anticipation of the policy, School E1 responded like this in 2014–15, a year earlier than the other schools. This ambiguity was resolved by categorizing it as type 4 as, despite the timing, it was a response to the policy.
In three case study schools, type 4 responses were observed to the civics policy. School A1 integrated part of the formerly compulsory community service activities into another subject ‘world and career orientation’, redesigned it, and increased the number of hours on the schedule. The remaining part of community service was made voluntary and reduced from 40 to a maximum of 20 h. This response affected the schools’ routines in much the same way as described above, for example: the redesigned subject required more teaching capacity, coordination between subjects was affected, as was the allocation of teachers and students across spaces. Schools H1 and H2 adapted their practice of 30 h of scheduled community service to 20 h of activities to be performed during after-school hours, leaving the compulsory nature intact. In both schools the response affected the schedule and several routines involved, such as a reduction of teaching capacity for community service activities and opening up available timeslots for other subjects.
Responses in this category have in common that adding, substituting, and eliminating lessons follow the structure of a schools’ schedule. So, if a school works with 45-min lessons, additional lessons for numeracy or literacy are also 45 min. If a school has shorter lessons one day a week, the added lessons follow the same rhythm. The schools’ responses neither affect how students are grouped: the added or reduced lessons apply to all students in a given track and stream. How a class, a teacher, a classroom, and a lesson are connected remains intact. Put differently, the interface remains the same, and established complementarities embedded in a schools’ schedule is preserved.
Type 5: Change at the cluster level, plus change in interfaces. The vital difference between this type and the former is that the structure underlying a schools’ schedule is affected. This type of response has the most far-reaching consequences, as it involves a change in the interface that stitches several organization routines together. We observed this type of response in five schools, all to the numeracy policy and all schools in noticeably similar ways. Students use software during self-study to improve their numeracy skills in these schools. Based on the software’s information, teachers continuously monitor student progress and decide whether and if so, what kind of additional instruction or supervision is offered to whom, when, and for how long. For example, students not practicing regularly may temporarily be obliged to attend scheduled hours for self-study under supervision until they are back on track; lessons for instruction by a teacher are scheduled for students who struggle with the same specific element, such as percentages, regardless of their year group, track or stream. Consequently, the structure of the schedules changes: from a completely group-based schedule to individualized schedules; from an entire track- and stream-based schedule to joint lessons for students from all tracks and streams; and from a preplanned schedule towards a schedule that can change at any time during the school year. All five schools use digital technology to allow for this type of change. Although schools apply this new practice only to teaching numeracy skills, it has consequences for the entire organization. While learning activities of separate tracks and streams were planned relatively independent of each other, coordination across all year groups, tracks and streams is now required to allow students to participate in the same numeracy lessons. In addition, offering numeracy instruction to subgroups of students only in case they need it also requires flexibility in teaching capacity and available spaces.
The logic of complementarity at the level of clusters of routines is helpful in explaining how the thirteen case study schools respond to each of the three policies separately and combined. This analysis builds on four observations from the data.
First, all schools changed something to their schedule in response to three concurrent policies, indicating that organization routines changed in all schools due to external policies and that none of the case study schools was resistant to all demands posed by government policy.
Our second observation is based on the combination of responses: all schools make changes to their most crucial cluster of routines, the schedule, in response to at least one of the three government policies we studied.
Third, each government policies appears to evoke different types of responses (see Table 1) despite the observation that specifics of schools’ schedules, and therefore their clusters of routines, differ widely. For instance, the introduction of the numeracy test resulted in change at the cluster level of routines in eleven of the thirteen schools; adaptation of learning goals in literacy affected only the activities during lessons in Dutch language in seven schools; and in response to the civics policy, ten of the thirteen schools did not change anything in their practice.
Fourth, the case study schools combine types of responses to different policy demands in many different ways. Table 2 (below) displays these various patterns of responses. For example, schools B1, F2 en G1 make changes in their schedule at the cluster level in response to the numeracy and literacy policies, whereas in response to the civics policy they make no changes. Another pattern of responses emerges at school E1, making no or only symbolical change in response the civics and numeracy policies while changing the schedule at the cluster level in response to literacy policy.
How can the initial theoretical notions of clusters of routines and the logic of complementarities help explain these observations? For reasons of the potential impact on the entire organization, schools are likely to prefer changes to single organization routines over changes to clusters of routines, which will be preferred over changes in programmed interfaces between different routines within a cluster. Therefore, schools are likely to opt for a response with the least organizational impact, provided they comply with policy requirements. This matches our observations. Out of the three policies studied here, the numeracy policy came with the highest stakes for students and schools, to which schools responded in ways that had the most organizational impact. The literacy policy came with lower stakes, to which many schools responded by limiting change to the level of a single routine. The responses of other schools did affect the schedule, and thus the cluster level of routines, but the underlying structure of the schedule was nowhere affected. The predominant response of ‘no change’ to the civic education policy fits the same pattern: schools preferred to stick to established practices despite abolished obligations and funding.
Two sets of findings seem at odds with a general pattern of schools responding to policies in ways that have the least impact on the organization from a perspective of clusters of routines and complementarities. Three of the case study schools changed their cluster of routines in response to the civics policy, while ‘no change’ sufficed (see Table 1). All three schools reduced the number of hours students had to commit themselves to community service, but none abolished the practice altogether. These schools’ schedules changed, hence their cluster of routines. However, the change proved marginal because reduction of community service had minimal impact on the organization. Community service takes place outside of the school and does not involve teachers, nor does it require any space within the school. These specific learning activities are thus not as closely connected to other organization routines within the cluster. It indicates that the degree of interdependence between organization routines within a cluster may be a relevant factor in future research on clusters of routines (Hoekzema, 2020).
Another set of finding relates to the numeracy policy. Most schools responded in ways that affected their schedule but not its underlying structure, changing the cluster of routines without changing the programmed interfaces. However, some schools did change the schedule structure, affecting the interfaces between several routines. Our data cannot answer why some schools choose the most impactful type of response. We could not find any consistent relationship between a case study school’s schedule and whether that school opted for this type of response: a school’s tracks and streams were not related to this type of response, nor was a school’s (lack) of rhythm in the schedule. Additional in-depth interviews with school leaders and teachers would be required to tap into underlying reasons for the fastidious undertaking of changing the entire structure of the schedule or interfaces between routines, and how this is thought to improve numeracy proficiency of students. However, this was beyond the scope of our study.