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Schools adapt or react to their environments


Municipal schools are not closed systems. School managers must adapt or react to their task environments. These represent challenges in terms of the autonomy that schools are granted, the competition among local schools for students, as well as the number and social composition of students. The issue has been examined in the first of two reports from a research project on Municipal School Management sponsored by the Danish National Education Agency.

The multivariate research is based on nationwide surveys of principals of municipal elementary and lower secondary schools as well as Danish and maths teachers in the 9th grade. The surveys were based on a literature review and qualitative fieldwork in six schools. The data collection was designed by SFI researchers in collaboration with other Danish and US researchers.

Municipal control and school competition increase school managers’ focus on academic performance

Municipal school managers are allowed considerable autonomy by the Danish national regulation regarding what and how much students should learn. Municipalities allow their schools substantial - but varying - autonomy with respect to aspects such as setting goals for student learning, teaching methods and recruitment of teachers. The study suggests that greater school autonomy induces school managements to de-emphasise setting goals for students’ academic performance and evaluation of this. At the same time, autonomous managements more often set independent school goals for students' well-being and for how many students should subsequently start and complete an upper secondary education or voca¬tional training. However, they also tend to follow up less on how their students are actually doing in the latter respect. Autonomous school managements are also less involved in educational methods.

Accordingly external pressure from the municipality makes schools focus more on academic achieve¬ment. The same applies to external pressure caused by competition from other public or private schools in the local area. Competition for students induces school managers to set school goals for students’ academic achievement and to give a higher priority to academic rather than social objectives and processes. Competition also gets managers more involved in educational methods. Thus, an academic focus seems to be an important parameter in competing for students. Finally, managers in competing schools listen more to their customers, the parents, by surveying parents’ satisfaction with the school.

More formalisation, networking and managerial experience in large schools

School size, in terms of the number of students, is linked to school management practices. Larger schools tend to have more experienced principals with higher pay and longer working hours. They also have more middle managers with more delegated administrative tasks, thereby allowing the principal to concentrate more on strategy and HR management. Larger schools make more use of age-segregated departments and various teams. These are established according to grade, class, and subject. Thus larger schools have more vertical and horizontal division of work as well as coordination.

With increasing school size we also find more formalisation. For example large schools more often use written goals and evaluation of the academic performance of graduates over time or compared to other schools. They also more often monitor students' later partici¬pation in upper secondary education or vocational training. Finally, larger schools have more external management contacts.

It is important to note, however, that the link between school size and management practices may not be due to school size per se, it may also be due to other features of large schools, such as principals' greater experience and effort.

Students' social background as a challenge

As shown in several studies, students’ social family background substantially affects their academic performance. This constitutes a huge challenge for managers of schools with high concentrations of less advantaged students. They tend to tackle this challenge by formulating school goals that differ from national and municipal goals, and more specifically by giving social goals a higher priority than academic achievement. Such schools also have more external manage¬ment contacts with actors such as the social services. Yet it seems problematic that these crucial contacts are also more conflict-ridden than for other schools.

Managers of schools with deprived student populations tend to rate the school-home cooperation as poorer and more problematic for optimal teaching compared to schools with more well-off parents. It seems a paradox, however, that managers facing this challenge adapt to this situation by actually giving a lower priority to school-home cooperation compared to schools with a stronger student background. Managers with deprived student populations spend less management time on cooperation with parents, and they survey parents’ satisfaction with the school less frequently. 

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