Findings from the Legal Standards and Professional Judgment in Leadership (LEX-EL) project
The project was designed to disentangle the complexity of legal standards and school leaders’ professional judgment. The legal standards in focus are students’ right to special needs education, adaptive education, and a good psychosocial environment conducive to learning.
The project examined how school leaders on multiple levels interpret and enforce regulation aiming at ensuring adaptive education and protecting each student’s right to a good psycho-social learning environment and special needs education as required. The research concerned the relation between the development and use of legal standards, and the professional considerations which are important for both pedagogical work and legal practice. This was investigated through three sub-projects: Sub-project 1 mapped and analysed key documents and procedures developed to aid schools in interpreting the Education Act. In sub-project 2, we used survey data from all principals in five counties as well as data from interviews with principals, leadership groups and teachers in six schools to inquire into how legal standards are transformed into professional actions on the local level. Sub-project 3 addressed how state school inspection policy is enacted and draws on documents, surveys, interviews and observations.
The mapping of key documents has shown that new regulations and guidelines increasingly articulate standards within the above-mentioned areas. The Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training plays an important role in interpreting the duties and rights of school leaders.
Results show that, in their work with the psycho-social environment, school leaders repeatedly evaluate what can be expedient and feasible solutions in concrete student cases, and often refer to what they believe to be in the child’s best interest. The law demands that the child’s own views must be taken into consideration in decision-making, but our study indicates this is not always the case, with the risk of jeopardizing individual legal rights. Moreover, conflicts are often solved at the lowest possible level. This approach is close to procedures put forth in the law, even if school leaders are more pragmatically oriented than what is prescribed in legal acts and regulations. Nevertheless, tensions arise between legal regulations focusing on individual students, and pedagogical discretion embracing both individual students and the student body as a whole.
In compulsory education, a range of programs are used to ensure a good learning environment. These programs are flexibly utilized as a key resource in schools, but are dependent on the situation. It should be emphasized that handling bullying in schools is a challenging task, and teachers experience a lack of adequate tools. Annual student surveys offer important indicators, and are perceived as more important than national guidelines and circulars concerning this area. Schools acknowledge the need for documentation. At the same time, school leaders highlight that their work linked to such documentation of practice is time-consuming. Legal discrepancies uncovered through state school inspection are regarded as control, but also of great help. School leaders welcome state school inspection because it enables them to reflect upon their own school’s challenges, routines and procedures together with external partners; however, teachers are less involved in the process. So far, state school inspection has not radically intervened into schools’ daily work.
The current state school inspection handbook introduced in 2014 represents a clear shift, where schools are not only controlled, but are also offered guidance as part of the inspectoral process. The aim is a stronger quality evaluation of schools’ pedagogical practices, presupposing considerable documentation from schools. Observations of the inspectoral practice show that inspection authorities primarily utilize standardized templates which do not capture practices in an adequate way. This raises questions about the benefit of using a lot of resources on national inspection.
School leaders and teachers experience many ethical dilemmas when adaptive education is to be realized. Dilemmas arise through tensions between economic conditions and the demand to individually adapt teaching to meet students’ capabilities and needs; between individual considerations and those of the student body as a whole; between individual needs and a prohibition of permanent aptitude differentiation (especially challenging in large classes). Informants question whether students with a right to special needs education receive the help they are entitled, and if the offered support is sufficient. Since non-qualified teaching assistants often are delegated the task to follow up students with special needs, without sufficient time to collaborate with classroom teachers, there is reason to question if schools act as responsible providers. Local school authorities encourage more flexible and creative uses of resources, but schools are nevertheless required to give notice to the policymakers when student rights are violated due to insufficient funding. Based on the findings, we argue that the capacity for legal and pedagogical discretion must be developed in schools.
For more information, check the project's web page.