Steering dynamics in complex education systems. An agenda for empirical research

Henno Theisens, Edith Hooge, Sietske Waslander


Many policy systems and education systems have grown more complex in the past three decades. Power has moved away from central governments in different directions: upwards towards international organisations, sideways to private institutions and non-governmental organisations, and downwards towards local governments and public enterprises such as schools and hospitals. Where once we had a central government, we now have governance, which can be defined as the processes of establishing priorities, formulating and implementing policies, and being accountable in complex networks with many different actors. These changes are not simply fads. They are a consequence of fundamental social changes that have made our societies more complex, where more ‘unknown unknowns’ cause unpredictability and a state of constant flux. In fact, societies have become so complex that steering from one center or through one logic is no longer possible.

Steering in complex education systems

Steering in such complex education systems is not straightforward. It emerges from the activities, tasks, and responsibilities of state and non-state actors together, operating at different levels and from different positions. There are many conceptual models that encapsulate it, such as multilevel and or network models. Despite a growing body of literature on new forms of governance, it is still poorly understood how such steering works in practice. There is a real need for empirical research to further the theoretical debate. Concepts such as networks, systems, multilevel and multi-actor governance are too broad to give empirical studies sufficient focus. What we, therefore, need to develop is a more specific perspective that adequately reflects critical issues in current thinking about governance and points to specific phenomena as focal points for empirical studies. This is what we aim to do in this article.


Theisens, H.C., Hooge, E.H. & Waslander, S. (2016). Steering dynamics in complex education systems. An agenda for empirical research. European Journal of Education, 51(4): 463 - 477. DOI: 10.1111/ejed.12187


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