14 SES 13 A, Primary Schools in their Community
I would say it’s the bench. The bench out here (the local stadium, ed.) on a summer night. Kids are playing football. The sun comes in right there, and talk, talk, talk, would you….could you please help me with this, this very simple task. Right?
This is how an informant describes how networks, trust and reciprocity are established in a community in the northern Jutland, Denmark. One of the elements I was looking for in a study from 2014 on the significance of elementary schools on the social capital in small communities. Although school closings have always existed, the period from 2007 to 2020 saw a dramatic increase in Denmark. In what later turned out to be the first wave from 2011 to 2013, 268 elementary schools were closed (Social- og Indenrigsministeriet, 2021). This was a consequence of structural changes in the aftermath of the municipal reform in 2007 (Bækgaard, 2010). The municipal reform reducing the number of municipalities from 271 to 98 and thus creating more sustainable municipalities (Hede & Lund, 2005). However, in 2010-2011 this created an intense debate and numerous protests, engaging entire communities all over the country. To name but a few of the arguments appearing in local newspapers, the citizens were convinced, that the closing of the school would put the development of their community on hold (Bornholms Tidende 25/3 2010). It would also be the start of the decline of the community (Sjællandske 27/5 2010), threaten the settlement policy in many municipalities (Landbrugsavisen 28/6 2010), and villages would end up as ghost towns (Jyske Vestkysten 22/5 2010). In short, the citizens were afraid that if the schools closed so would their community.
The studies on the consequences of the school closings are on economic aspects like the reduction of costs that have not been as significant as expected, on the decline in the house prices, empty houses, the development of the school quality (Christoffersen & Larsen, 2013; Svendsen G. L., 2013), and a more general study on the importance of the municipalities service adaptation based on knowledge and dialogue with the local communities from 2014 (Jensen, Nørgaard, Broen, & Jensen, 2014). Only two studies from before 2011 address directly the consequences for the communities. They both concur that the closing of the schools was the result of a preceding decline of the community (Teknologisk Institut, 2008; Egelund & Laustsen, 2004). There are also some small-scale studies for example on the correlation between school closings and the decrease of members in local sports associations (DGI 2012 – sports association) and the drop in house prices (real estate agencies).
Empirical evidence was needed to examine the significance of the school as a common meeting-place in communities. Theoretically, the concept of social capital was used to examine this, and more specifically the way Robert Putnam defines this concept. In his understanding social capital refers to social networks, or connections among individuals, and the norm of reciprocity and trust that follows with those connections (Putnam, 2000). Putnam distinguishes between bonding social capital where the social networks are closed and you only trust the people you know (particular trust), whereas the bridging social capital has open networks and you trust everybody (social trust). This is the kind of social capital that generates the most social capital (Putnam, 2000).
Social networks, trust and reciprocity is how social capital in this perspective is usually operationalised, and typically in big surveys like the International Social Survey Programme or World Values Survey. In the questionnaires the three elements are covered with very specific questions, the same ones all over the world, and with just some small adjustments throughout the years. Since Denmark usually scores high particularly on social and institutional trust (Sønderskov & Dinesen, 2016; Paldam & Svendsen, 2000), the research interest in this study was not to measure the amount of social capital but to get an understanding of the type of social capital to be found (Leonard, 2004) and how this social capital is built and maintained (Warner, 2001). In this context, the concept of communities covers both villages defined by Statistics Denmark as having min. 200 inhabitants (Statistics Denmark, 2021) and smaller communities. The specific case was 14 communities in a Danish peripheral municipality that have also had school closings before 2011. This would allow me to also examine long term impact of the closings on the communities. The 14 communities were chosen on the basis of the different structural changes in the school sector as well as geographical considerations in order to represent the entire municipality. The communities were divided in three groups, communities with still active school (private or public), communities with schools closed in 2011, and communities with schools closed before 2011. The communities represent a variety of challenges in numbers of inhabitants, services and development, and altogether different scenarios of regional development. The empirical material covers both semi-structured individual interviews with 22 resource persons from each community, written material from the 14 communities and municipal minutes and hearings pertaining to the school closings. The interview guide looked for information about the community like meeting places, the communal sense, how well the citizens know one another and voluntary work for example in connection with communal eating or parties as well as perspectives for the future. In the analysis I was looking for the number and density of associations in the community as a proxy for social networks, reciprocity in form of voluntary work and the willingness to help out in the community, and trust in family and friends, the particular trust, and trust in neighbors and the neighborhood and the community in general, the social trust.
As the quote in the start of the abstract shows, sitting next to one another on the bench starts a conversation. You get to know one another. Social relations build trust and an inclination to help one another. The study cannot confirm the citizens’ fear that school closing closes down the community. At that point, all the communities had plans for development despite different challenges. The social capital was definitely of the bridging type, regardless of the presence of a school. Even though the informants expressed the importance of a school to attract new families to the community, it was not school as such that maintained the social capital, but rather the local civic association and local sports association. Both associations were found in every community no matter how small. They were the ones responsible for making activities for all the citizens that built the trust and the inclination for the citizens to help each other. The associations were also responsible for the maintaining of the community, by applying for funding to tear down decrepit houses, building new local halls, squares and other meeting places. The associations were the ones who were active in maintaining and developing the social capital. They were also being open to other communities for example by arranging bicycling-trips to getting to know one another or by forming alliances to get a stronger voice in the municipality. Since the study in 2014 there has been two more waves of school closings, and only a single study on the impact for the communities. Therefore, it would be interesting to redo the study, and as a starting point for a discussion at this year’s ECER it would be interesting to discuss school closings in other countries as well as methodological issues when examining the implications.
Bækgaard, M. (2010). Skolelukninger i Kommunalreformens skygge? En analyse af Kommunalreformens policy-konsekvenser. Politik, 13(3). Christoffersen, H., & Larsen, K. B. (2013). De foreløbige erfaringer fra kommunernes skolelukninger. Cepos. Egelund, N., & Laustsen, H. (2004). Skolenedlæggelse - hvilken betydning har det for lokalsamfundet? København: Danmarks Pædagogiske Universitets Forlag. Hede, S. H., & Lund, S. (2005). Kommunale stordriftsfordele - en kritisk undersøgelse på folkeskoleområdet. Politica, 37(4), pp. 453-476. Jensen, J. O., Nørgaard, H., Broen, C., & Jensen, e. H. (2014). Servicetilpasning og lokaludvikling i yderkommuner. Aalborg: Statens Byggeforskningsinstitut,. Leonard, M. (2004). Bonding and Bridging Social Capital: Reflections from Belfast. Sociology, 38(5), pp. 927–944. Paldam, M., & Svendsen, G. T. (2000). An essay on social capital: looking for the fire behind the smoke. European Journal of Political Economy, 16, p. 339-366. Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster. Social- og Indenrigsministeriet. (26. 01 2021). Kommunale Nøgletal. From http://www.noegletal.dk Statistics Denmark (2021) Byopgørelsen. https://www.dst.dk/da/Statistik/dokumentation/statistikdokumentation/byopgoerelsen/indhold Svendsen, G. L. (2013). Skolelukninger på landet: Hvor, hvor mange, og hvilke konsekvenser? In G. L. Svendsen, Livsvilkår og udviklingsmuligheder på landet: Viden, cases, teorier (p. 149-161). Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag. Svendsen, G. L., & Sørensen, J. F. (2016). Skolelukninger på landet En undersøgelse af skolelukningsforløb i Tønder Kommune 2010-11, samt lukningernes konsekvenser for de berørte lokalsamfund. Center for Landdistriktsforskning, Syddansk Universitet. Sønderskov, K. M., & Dinesen, P. T. (2016). Trusting the State, Trusting Each Other? The Effect of Institutional Trust on Social Trust. Polit Behav, 38, p. 179-202. Teknologisk Institut. (2008). Skoler i landdistrikter. From https://sim.dk/media/15458/skoler-i-landdistrikter.pdf Warner, M. (2001). Building social capital: the role of local government. Journal of Socio-Economics, 30, p. 187-192.
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