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Citizens governing schools: Customers, partners, right-holders
Umeå University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of applied educational science, Umeå Centre for Evaluation Research (UCER).
2015 (English)Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Research questions, objectives and theoretical framework

Throughout Europe, evaluation has expanded radically at all levels of school governance as part of the broad doctrine of New Public Management including marketization, decentralization and performance management. There is a growing accountability pressure derived from globalisation of education governance resulting in evaluation systems (Leeuw and Furubo 2008) of monitoring, inspection and oversight, and benchmarking to measure performance and assess students and teachers. Sweden and other countries’ education systems increasingly rely on evaluations of different kinds as ways to control and enhance quality and performance in education and schooling but also to support competition and school choice (Merki 2011; Pollitt and Bouckaert 2011; Dahler-Larsen 2012; Lingard and Sellar 2013; Grek and Lindgren 2014). Despite the recent recentralisation effects of evaluation systems local autonomy is still high. Actors at the municipal and school level have different conditions and varying freedom of choice for local school governance in different education systems. The local context matters in a variety of ways. Local actors can assimilate, adjust or resist state policies of for example marketization and use evaluations in different ways. 

Evaluation systems put in place assumes that citizens are rational and active choosers using evaluation and accessible performance data for an informed choice  (Musset 2012). But research indicate that parents are primarily concerned with “the atmosphere”, “pedagogical climate”, “safety” and “reputation of the school” (Ehren, Leeuw and Scheerens 2005, p. 71). However, school choice has made parents a more powerful policy actor in local school governance (Blomqvist 2004). But not only school choice contributed to the shift from macro democracy to micro democracy (Möller 1996). So did different forms of voice options for improving participation and influence in citizens daily encounter with welfare services (Jarl 2005; Kristoffersson 2008; Dahlstedt 2009b; Holmgren et al. 2012). During the 1990s the emphasis on active citizenship and collaboration was viewed as a natural part of the democratic mission of the schools. The school should be an arena for dialogue forming an active local citizenship. Progress should be achieved from the bottom-up by those involved promoting the inclusion of parents in a form of partnership with the school (Jarl 2005; Dahlstedt 2009b). This multi-actor model of governance focusing on citizens’ agency reflect what has been called a ‘will to empower’ (Cruikshank 1999), ‘politics of activation’ (Dahlstedt 2009a) or ‘government technologies of agency’ (Dean 2010).

Parents become a part of local school governance when they make choices, try to influence teachers, school-principals, schools administrators or local school boards. And their need of evaluation for this influence differs. Parents perceived as customers need easily accessible performance data to support informed school choice whereas parents acting as active and responsible citizens largely need the same evaluation knowledge as other policy actors. How local authorities, local school providers and schools govern their education and schooling through different forms of evaluation therefore shapes conceptions of citizenship. Studies on local policy, i.e. schools and school providers’ strategies and use of evaluation related information is scarce and there is a need for more knowledge on how it shapes citizen roles in different education systems. In this paper I therefore begin by exploring what ways are provided for parents as citizens, to influence, change and affect education in Sweden. I then turn to answer what evaluation related information is given on school and school provider websites to analyse what citizenship ideals are promoted using the categorisation developed from the channels for influence. I finish with discussing these forms of citizen power in education in relation to the more everyday encounter with teachers and school staff by drawing on previous research and interviews with parents and teachers.  

Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources Used

The material consists of government documents, reports, laws and regulation to explore the formal ways for parents to influence education. To explore what citizenship ideals are promoted in local school governance, I have analyzed four municipals websites and 8 school websites in these municipalities. The municipalities, all of which have populations of 75 000 – 100 000 have been selected strategically to reflect different contextual factors such as political majority, school performance, and share of independent schools. These have been anonymized and is referred to as “North”, “East”, “South” and “West”. The eight schools, two from each municipal, were also selected strategically on factors such as private or public provider, performance and socio-economic composition. By drawing on Hirschmans (Hirschman 1970) theory of exit and voice and Dahlberg and Vedungs (2001) categorisations of arguments for increased user orientation I categorize three different citizenship ideals when exploring formal ways for citizens to act and influence education in line with a politics of activation. These citizenship ideals functions as ideal types when analysing the websites and the evaluation and governance related information provided to (potential) users.

To discuss citizen power in education and problematize how it relates to promoted citizenship ideals I draw on previous studies and research as well as interviews with parents and teachers at the schools. The interviews were conducted within the larger research project “Consequences of evaluation for school practice: steering, accountability and school development”, financed by the Swedish Research Council.

Conclusions, expected outcomes or findings

Preliminary findings show that there are several ways for parents to affect and influence education in Sweden. The school choice reforms have considerably improved the power of parents in local school governance positioning parents as costumers. But user power have also been strengthened through providing different ways to complain and appeal positioning citizens as right-holders. Furthermore users are positioned as partners in influencing education through parent boards. The analysis of the websites shows how municipalities respond differently to state policies and accountability pressures in their use of providing evaluation related information. Municipalities with a right-wing political majority provide extensive benchmarking systems for informed school choice making customer the dominant position. Not surprisingly, the independent schools provide more performance data for marketing than the public schools. However, some of the independent schools also provide information on their collaboration with parents, indicating a position of citizens as partners. The position of citizens as right-holders are strongest on the public schools and public providers’ websites with information on rights and ways to claim them.

Still parents don’t use evaluation related information as intended. Rather parents use grades, tests and school information more informally directly with teachers and school staff. Teachers report an increased pressure from parents on grades and changes within school, and the threat of exit makes their voice options more viable in individual contacts with staff. At least if other alternatives are present. But there are also indications that collective voice options are not used, instead exit is chosen sometimes in combination with the individual voice option of complaints and appeals. The problem of recruiting parents for collective action in parent boards or associations and the increasing amount of individual problem solving action through appeals and complaints suggest that parents mainly govern schools through individual rather than collective action.



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Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
National Category
Pedagogy Pedagogical Work Public Administration Studies Political Science (excluding Public Administration Studies and Globalization Studies)
URN: urn:nbn:se:umu:diva-109086OAI: diva2:854760
European Conference on Educational Research (ECER), NW 23: Policy Studies and Politics of Education, in Budapest, Hungary, September 8-11, 2015
Consequences of evaluation for school practice: governance, accountability and school development
Swedish Research Council
Available from: 2015-09-17 Created: 2015-09-17 Last updated: 2015-09-17

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