The development of the system of school inspections is an emerging policy issue throughout Europe.The number of inspection activities is rapidly increasing, revealing a movement toward intensified political efforts to audit and exercise control over education (Dahler-Larsen, 2012; Power, 1999). Previous research on education governance in Europe, including the agenda-setting and policy-learning capacities of the Standing International Conference of Inspectorates (SICI), suggest that school inspection offers a resource for trans/intra-national policy learning within and across education systems. This renders education policy increasingly homogenous and develops a global field of education policy (see e.g., Ehren, 2012; Grek, Lawn, Lingard, Varjo, 2009; Lawn, 2006; Ozga, Dahler-Larsen, Segerholm & Simola, 2011; van Bruggen, 2010). In light of theories of travelling and embedded policy (Ozga, 2005), concepts of national school inspection policy in Sweden may therefore provide significant issues to be discussed within the context of European education policy research.
National inspection was reinstated in Sweden in 2003 and was further intensified and strengthened in 2008 by the establishment of the Swedish Schools Inspectorate (the SSI). The political motives for restoration and bolstering of Swedish school inspections during the periods 2001–2003 and 2006–2008 stressed the necessity of sufficient state involvement in order to retain and ensure nationwide educational quality and equivalence (Rönnberg, 2012). Since the reinstatement of school inspections, additional political efforts have been put in place to intensify and strengthen school inspections and exercise national control over education. The SSI now regularly supervises all Swedish schools in all municipalities, focusing on the fulfillment of national objectives, students’ achievement levels, students’ safety, equal access to education for all students, and the legal rights of the individuals’. The inspectors’ assessments regarding the schools are made public and include active measures from the schools to rectify the shortcomings observed by the inspectors. On the first of July 2011, the operations of the SSI were given enhanced legal support in a new Education Act. For example, the authority now has the means to impose fines in order to exert pressure on schools to take action.
In light of the increased demands for accountability from the schools being inspected, the aim of this paper is to explore and analyze how school principals perceive their room for discretion in their schools’ encounters with regular supervisions conducted by the SSI. In the analysis of this research, opportunities and constraints in reference to taking action and fulfilling the inspection criteria are of specific interest.
The empirical basis consists of telephone interviews with 18 compulsory school principals whose schools have been inspected by the SSI after the inspectorate’s audited operations gained enhanced legal support. Methodologically, the analysis is informed by O’Connor’s (1995) “continuum of agency.” Within this framework, narrated acts can be understood as ways of claiming, deflecting, or problematizing agency. In this sense, the same narrated acts can also be understood as means to claim, deflect, or problematize the room for discretion at the local level. The interviewees’ ways of ascribing to themselves different “positions” (Harré & van Langenhov, 1999) in the narratives of conducted inspections can also reveal aspects of social structure (such as roles, rules, hierarchies) in the schools’ encounters with the SSI. As the interviewees locate different actors involved in the process in time and space, describing both what enables and what constrains responses from the schools, the narratives point to the opportunities and the limits of agency and discretion within the inspection context.
European Conference of Educational Research (ECER), Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul, September 2013.