26 SES 07 A, Local Education Authorities and their Ties to Leadership
The regulation of the Swedish school system has been constantly changed during the last three decades. Today a strong national regulation and inspectorate meet school-owners responsibility for creating conditions that insure equity in education and principals with responsibility for the implementation. Superintendents are in the centre of this chain or networks of governance (Moos et al, 2016). Between 1956 -1991 this position was strongly regulated in the Education Act (Johansson & Nihlfors, 2014). Between 1991 and 2019 the superintendent wasn´t mentioned even if the position remained. From 2019 the superintendent shall: "…assist the school owner in ensuring that the regulations that apply to education are complied with in the school-owner's activities within the school system…."(SFS 2010:800, Chapter2, 8a§).
Our research focus is on decision-making as a central leadership activity. Even if a principal has the legal right to decide on their school's internal organisation, they are dependent on prerequisites decided by the school-owner. The superintendent is the one who both prepares the factual basis for the school-owners' decision-making and creates conditions for the principals at the local level.
Research on decision-making in organisation is extensive. Nevertheless, an overview of a decade of research on principals shows that few studies focus on the actual decision-making in schools (Ärlestig et al, 2016). When it comes to the superintendent, research on decision-making is rare. We know that the superintendent and the chair of the board is working close together and that suggestions that is put forward are accepted (Moos & Paulsen, 2014). A gap between the chair and the rest of the board exists as well between the superintendent and the principals, a mistrust between the principals and the board in both ways (Johansson et al, 2014). Different degree of decentralisation affects the work of a superintendent; if most of the decisions are made above or below this position (Moos et al, 2016), trust is challenged when the national regulations by-pass the school-owner and goes directly to the schools, cf. the national inspection (Paulsen et al, 2016; Novak 2018). An in-balance between responsibilities and power, knowledge and skills, communication and dialogue also affect confidence and trust between different actors in the same organisation (Nihlfors & Johansson, 2015). Well-functioning relations between the school-owner, superintendent and principal is important to give teachers the best prerequisites in education (cf. Seashore Louis, 2015). This leads us to the research questions: How do superintendents look upon decision-making processes?
Theoretically, the paper takes its point of departure in different logics of decision-making to understand decision-making processes and people approaching decisions in organisations. These logics are interpretations of the diverse reasoning that decision is made upon. Although these logics are simplifications, they can fit into different situations and contexts and can be used as an analytical framework to understand a more compound reality. Two logics is used: the logic of appropriateness constructed on rules and norms and the decision-making attempts to make consistent with them, and the logic of imitation founded on something that already have happened. The decision-making considers how others have acted or how decisions were made in a similar situation (Brunsson & Brunsson, 2017, Sevon, 1996). We also draw upon a critical organisation-theory perspective to examine those ideologies and conceptions, which is the foundation for the distribution of power, decision-making right, and influence between different stakeholders in the organisation (Alvesson & Deetz, 1992). The critical perspective can furthermore highlight that the organisation superintendent is in, is not a value-neutral institution but rather a political arena where various forms of power occur. A central question is how leaders and managers exercise control over their co-workers.
The superintendent shall ensure that the national regulations that apply to education are complied with the school-owners’ activities. That is, with the goal that the principals should have the prerequisites to be able to organize an equivalent education. The superintendent must prepare suggestions that, founded on scientific knowledge and proven experiences, suites different school contexts. Something that can create tensions between different interests both in the school organization and among parents and pupils. We therefore decided to carry out a study of superintendents’ decision-making during the pandemic to investigate whether this could highlight sensitive parts of the decision-making process. In a crisis decision-making is often, of necessity centralised and can challenge legitimacy and trust as well as increasing the risk of indebtedness. The study was undertaken in the autumn of 2020 among 221 superintendents attending a seminar offered by the National Agency for Education in Sweden. They met on-line in 8 different groups and discussed decision-making together with us, the researchers. After a short introduction, they shared experiences in smaller groups followed by a short lecture introducing a theoretical framework for analysing decision-making. Further discussions in smaller groups were undertaken focusing on difficult decisions during the pandemic. The meeting ended up with concluding talks in the whole group. Some groups and some individuals sent in reflections to the researchers (around one quarter of the participants). Some weeks later everyone was asked to give examples of decisions they usually make that they consider to be of importance for the education and for the principals’ decision-making. More than one third answered these questions. Most of the participants in this study (221 persons) are women (71%). They work in and for different school-owners; municipality (50%), state or regional (4%) or an independent (46%) owner. The position of the superintendent varies; some superintendents have several layers between themselves and the principles and some superintendents have a CEO between them and the board. A qualitative content analysis has been made where common themes that appear in the written material have been categorized and presented under different headings. The second analysis was made using the different logics as a grid on the total material.
The superintendents say, they haven´t made any difficult decisions during the pandemic as National Agencies decided guidelines which should be implemented. A few superintendents who deviated from them was questioned. One difficulty was however to take care of the effects of the decisions taken, like anxiety and uncertainty among co-workers, pupils, and parents. Most of the decisions during the pandemic was generally made on a scientific basis from the Public Health Agency, difficult to question, as the area was unknown for most actors. Both school-owners and principals gave the superintendent the legitimacy to handle the pandemic. The responses indicate an interpretation of decision-making more as a single occasion than a whole process from seeking information, making a choice and then acting (March, 1994). The superintendents used the logic of appropriateness as they follow the rules and regulation from the Swedish national authority´s. The dominant logic was imitation with a few exceptions. To take equal decisions was stronger than to reduced equivalence. It was appropriate to imitating other organisations decisions or a national authority (Bröms, 2020). Important decisions in “ordinary” cases the superintendent say is about organisation, resource distribution, personnel issues, etc. Still the most difficult thing is to deal with decisions that affects individuals. If creating equal education need different solutions in different contexts that will affect individuals. The result from this study underlines different impact of scientific based suggestions; the difficulty in combining central and local decisions for common goals. Some superintendents express concerns about succeeding in returning responsibility where it belongs. The difficulty is not the decision as such but to explain, convince and defend the consequences of the decisions both with individuals and the media. It is a complicated interplay between knowledge and experiences, personal qualities, environmental issues and who is in power that determines the result.
Alvesson, M., & Willmott, H. (1992). On the idea of emancipation in management and organization studies. Academy of management review, 17(3), 432-464. Brunsson, K. & Brunsson; N. (2017). Decisions. The complexities of individual and organizational decision-making. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. Bröms, T. (2020) Principals decision-making for organising the educational organisation. I Moos, L., Nihlfors, E, & Merok Paulsen, J (Eds.). Re-centering the critical potential of Nordic school leadership research: Fundamental but often forgotten perspectives. Educational Governance Research. Springer book series. Johansson, O. & Nihlfors, E. (2014). The Swedish Superintendent in the Governing Structure of the School System. In Nir, A. (2014). The Educational Superintendent between trust and regulation. An international Perspective. New York: Nova Publishers. Johansson, O., Nihlfors, E. & Jervik Steen, L. (2014). School Boards in Sweden. In Moos, L. & Paulsen, J. Eds. (2014). School Boards in the Governance Process. Dordrecht: Springer Educational Governance Research 1. Johansson, O., Nihlfors, E., Jervik Steen & Karlsson, S. (2016). Superintendents in Sweden: Structures, Cultural Relations and Leadership. In Moos, L., Nihlfors, E., & Paulsen, J. Eds. (2016). Nordic Superintendents: Agents in a Broken Chain. Dordrecht: Springer. Educational Governance Research 2. March, J.G. (1994). A Primer on Decision-making. How decision Happen. New York: The Free Press. Moos, L., Nihlfors, E. & Paulsen, J.M. (2016). Nordic Superintendents: Agent in a Broken Chain. Dordrecht: Springer Educational Governance Research 2. Moos, L. & Paulsen, J.M. (2014). School Boards in the Governance Process. Dordrecht: Springer Educational Governance Research 1. Nihlfors, E: & Johansson, O. (2015). När nationell policy möter lokala genomförandearenor. Nir, A. (2014). The Educational Superintendent between trust and regulation. An international Perspective. New York: Nova Publishers. Novak, J. (2018). Juridification of Educational Spheres. The Case of Swedish School Inspection. Uppsala: Uppsala University. Seashore Louis, K. (2015). Linking leadership to learning: State, district and local effects. In Skott, P. & Nihlfors, E. Special Issue: Educational Leadership in Transition. Uppsala: NordSTEP Vol 1. Issue 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/nstep.v1.30321 Sevón, G. (1996). Organizatioal imitation in identity transformation. In B. Czarniawska-Joereges & G. Sevón (Eds.) Translating organizational change. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. SFS 2010:800 Swedish School Law Ärlestig, H., Johansson, O. & Nihlfors, E. (2016). Sweden: Swedish School Leadership Reseaarch – An important but Neglected Area. In Ärlestig, H., Day, C. & Johansson, O. (2016). A Decade of Research on School Principals, Cases from 24 Countries. Dordrecht. Springer Studies in Educational Leadership 21.
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