23 SES 13 E, School Governance
The aim with this paper is to explore local school governance in the Swedish schooling system by focusing on the local authority and principals through a lens of neo-institutional theory. The study is conducted against a backdrop of current trends in global and national educational policy where it in the Swedish context is possible to identify two major shifts:
- new ways of how the state seeks to control the schools’ outcomes at the expense of the local authorities room for exercise of power– a ‘re-centralisation’
- the emergence of a new dynamic between the local authority and principals.
In the early 1990s, the Swedish school system was decentralised and the municipalities were given authority for the governing of the schools. A new goal- and outcome-based quality system was introduced that put the municipalities in Sweden in a new position. However, during the last decades transnational organisations and associations such as the OECD and the EU have gained greater influence over education policy (Robertson & Dale, 2015). New policy spaces have emerged that transcend, but also converge within, national borders (Sassen, 2006). Accountability, standardisation and increased student results stand out as important ingredients in current global reform agendas (Wahlström & Sundberg, 2017a; Anderson-Levitt, 2008). In Sweden, declining student achievement in PISA has made policy-makers inclined to be informed by policy solutions from the OECD (Wahlström, 2017). Paired with a strong focus on student achievement, the notion of a school system in a state of crisis grew. Altogether, this have spurred an intensive critique against the decentralised schooling system and triggered a trend of ‘re-centralisation’ in Sweden, meaning a shift towards a more state-regulated governing of the school system (Wahlström & Sundberg, 2017; Adolfsson, 2013) . The government has introduced several reforms and incentives that involves the local management of schools. These include, for instance, a new national curriculum for the compulsory and the upper secondary schooling, a School Inspectorate for auditing and monitoring schools; A reformed Education Act emphasising the local authority’s responsibility for equity and student achievement, and strengthening the principals’ authority; Professional development programmes; and new specialist functions in school (Alvunger, 2015; Adolfsson & Alvunger, 2017). These policy movements have altogether challenged the relations between the state, the local authorities and the schools in Sweden. In light of these changes and with reference to the presented aim of this paper, we ask ourselves the following research questions:
- How do representatives of the local authority experience and respond to the pressure and influence from the state through the focus on equity and the improvement of student results in national educational policy discourse?
- What strategies do the local authority employ for governing the schools in the municipality?
- In what ways do principals respond to the tension in the ‘dual’ governance from the state and the local authority?
The paper draws on a ‘classical’ theoretical and methodological framework of curriculum theory (i.e. the frame-factor theory), with its different levels of analysis – the societal/ideological level, the programmatic level; and the school/classroom level (Lundgren, 1972). When it comes to the more specific analysis of the consequences of the changed conditions of governing and exercise of control at the local policy level, a neo-institutional theoretical perspective will be used (Scott, 2008). From this perspective, three dimensions can be highlighted regarding how institutions seek to control and affect other institutions, respond to external pressure and seek legitimacy: regulative (rules and sanctions for legitimacy), normative (evaluation and moral legitimacy), and cognitive-cultural/discursive (shared conceptions and frames of meaning-making (2008).
This paper has a mixed-method design, where the research design aims at preserving the complexity and deepening the perspective of the research questions being addressed while at the same time obtaining different, but complementary data on the same phenomenon (Cresswell, 2010; Cresswell and Clark, 2007). The study of local governance with the local authority and principals is conducted in three steps. The first of the research questions, i.e. how representatives of the local authority experience and respond to policy pressure from the state, will be answered by using secondary data from a project that investigated the municipalities as policy actors in light of the implementation of the new national curriculum for compulsory schooling in Sweden (Wahlström & Sundberg, 2017). It includes a survey (n= 727) and interviews with representatives from local authorities in Sweden. The two remaining sets of research questions, comprising local authorities’ strategies for governing schools and principals’ responses, will be answered through a case study of a large municipality in southern Sweden (135 000 inhabitants) using a survey (n=61; response rate 62 %) to principals and 4 semi-structured focus-group interviews with principals and representatives of the local authority. The survey consisted of questions about experiences of the subsequent organisation, governing structures, the communication of aims between different levels, collaborative structures and arenas, professional development, curriculum support and the role of functions for school development. The quantitative data was then analysed and used for asking follow-up and questions in the interviews, targeting specific items regarding experiences of expectations from the institutional environment, policy pressures, governing structures and strategies to cope with certain arrangements in the environment. The interviews thus provided complementary qualitative data and gave a richer description of the principals’ views.
Representatives from the local authority emphasise that the national governance of schools to a higher extent and in a more explicit way is directed towards the schools as units as a result the recent educational reforms. They claim that the autonomy of principals following the Education act has created greater clarity. Meanwhile, it has impeded their agency in matters concerning enactment of government policy and curriculum. In combination with the emphasis on local authorities as being responsible for quality assurance, allocating resources for equity and student achievement, the local authorities’ ability to control internal processes of schools has decreased significantly. It seems that local authorities’ space for regulative sanctions and mechanisms has been weakened. In order to compensate, local authorities apply strategies of soft governance for controlling the schools. These strategies are characterised by normative and cognitive/discursive dimension and may be comprised by one or a combination of the following: • Re-structuring the organisation and controlling communication • Use expert teachers to monitor and control internal professional development/school improvement efforts of schools • Competition through rewarding schools which comply to reforms, show best practice and have high-performing students • Standardisation measures to ensure greater coherence and compliance The principals describe a more generous space for action with the Education act, but they also experience a higher degree of pressure to improve student achievement and goal attainment, both from the local authority and from the state. This pressure is expressed in different ways. The local authority presents comparisons of results between schools which triggers competition. The principals are bound to report results or other statistical data on request, which in turn may cause a negative pressure from their teachers. In addition, principals describe how a lot of resources in terms of time and money are invested to ‘pass’ inspections from the national agency.
Adolfsson, C-H. (2013). Kunskapsfrågan – En läroplansteoretisk studie om gymnasieskolans reformer mellan 1960-talet och 2010-talet [The question of knowledge – a curriculum study of the Swedish upper secondary school reforms between the 1960s and 2010s]. Dissertation, Linnaeus University. Adolfsson, C-H., & Alvunger, D. (2017). The nested systems of local school development : Understanding improved interaction and capacities in the different sub-systems of schools. Improving Schools. 20. 195-208. Alvunger, D. (2015). Towards new forms of educational leadership? The local implementation of förstelärare in Swedish schools. Nordic Journal of Studies in Educational Policy, 1(3), 55–66. Anderson-Levitt, K. M. (2008). Globalization and curriculum. In: M. F. Connelly (Ed.), The Sage handbook of curriculum and instruction (pp. 349–368). London: Sage Publications. Creswell, J. W. (2010). Mapping the developing landscape of mixed methods research. In A. Tashakkori, & C. Teddlie (Eds.), Sage handbook of mixed methods in social & behavioral research (pp. 45–68). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Creswell, J. W., & Plano Clark, V. (2007). Designing and conducting mixed methods. London: SAGE. Lundgren, U.P. (1972). Frame factors and the teaching process: A contribution to curriculum theory and theory of teaching. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. Robertson, S., & Dale, R. (2015). Towards a ‘critical cultural political economy’ account of the globalising of education, Globalisation, Societies and Education, 13(1), 149–170, DOI: 10.1080/14767724.2014.967502 Sassen, S. (2006). Territory, authority, rights: From medieval to global assemblages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Scott, W. (2008). Approaching Adulthood: The Maturing of Institutional Theory. Theory and Society, 37(5), 427-442. Wahlström, N., & Sundberg, D. (2017). Transnational curriculum standards and classroom practices. The new meaning of teaching. New York, NY: Routledge. Wahlström, N. (2017). The travelling reform agenda: The Swedish case through the lens of OECD. In N. Wahlström, & D. Sundberg (Eds.), Transnational curriculum standards and classroom practices. The new meaning of teaching (pp. 15–30). New York, NY: Routledge.
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