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The Education Act's paragraph on school environment and bullying creates a lot of stress for headteachers. Many of those who have to handle such a legal process resign afterwards.

7 out of 10 headteachers describe their job as dangerous to their health

“I understand well why many are leaving the profession,” professor says.

The day-to-day work of many Norwegian headteachers is characterised by micro-management, unclear lines of accountability, and high pressure. This limits their ability to develop the school, and affects both the well-being of school leaders and the performance of pupils.

These are findings from a large survey of Norwegian school leaders carried out by researchers at the University of Agder (UiA) on behalf of Skolelederforbundet (the Association of School Heads). 

539 senior leaders from primary and secondary schools participated. This makes the results representative of the country as a whole.

Many municipalities do not have school policies

 “70 per cent of school leaders describe their work as hazardous to their health. They receive limited support from local authorities and feel that government regulations are burdensome. It is easy to understand that many choose to leave the profession, while potential leaders choose to not apply for these positions,” Professor Morten Øgård at UiA says.

He points out that half of Norwegian municipalities do not have an established school policy.

“So what should these headteachers commit to? Many of them do not receive any directions from the municipality, and do not have room for action to exercise leadership. And when they finally do, many are micromanaged to death by top-down managed organisations that would rather control and manage than stimulate innovative thinking," he says.

He calls the findings astounding.

“There is a strong relationship between work pressure, lack of support, and dissatisfaction which leads to headteachers quitting their jobs," Professor Morten Øgård says. Here with colleague Linda Hye.

He says that this is a system where a significant proportion of Norwegian municipalities struggle with management and governance challenges. 

"The issues we have uncovered are similar to findings particularly reported in Sweden, but also in Denmark,” he says.

Union leader Stig Johannessen of the Association of School Heads also reacts to the findings.

“Action must be taken now. There is a headteacher crisis where people choose to quit their jobs or not apply for headteacher positions. The municipalities must take responsibility, and this autumn's election should be an election for good schools and kindergartens. The municipalities need to prioritise children and young people,” he says.

"The municipalities must take action"

The Education Act creates a lot of stress for school leaders. This particularly applies to section 9A, which deals with the school environment and bullying.

“It creates difficulties in the day-to-day work of school leaders, and it reduces motivation. Several of the headteachers who have to go through such a legal process quit afterwards,” researcher Linda Hye at UiA says.

She believes that what is needed is for Norwegian municipal directors to build support around the headteachers, and to give them a clearer framework for what they are allowed to do and what is expected of them.

“That is perhaps our most important message: The municipalities' governance and management lines of accountability must be clarified if they want to retain their school leaders and get the best out of them,” she says.

Inadequate reporting regime

The researchers find several interesting paradoxes in how school leaders describe their work situation.

Headteachers have a great deal of freedom to influence the educational development work. But in reality, their opportunities to have an impact are limited.

There is little room for rewarding well-executed or innovative educational work. They are rarely able to use their budget to fund initiatives. And there are many restrictions on how they can manage their staff. 

“This room for action is followed up by a municipal reporting regime which is challenging in many municipalities. The system focuses on finances and pupil absence statistics, which can easily be obtained from central records. Information about things we know matter for the school's development - such as educational development work and results - is requested to a lesser extent,” Øgård says.

The result is that school leaders have to spend a lot of time reporting on things they have the least control over.

“The development work that school leaders actually want to do is limited because headteachers are not able to prioritise it,” he says. 

At the same time, we know from large international surveys that this development work is the most important thing we can do to influence children's learning and development,

Øgård says this makes the position of headteacher challenging.

“Both the state and elected officials in many municipalities have a way to go. Schools tend to become amateurish administrative units trying to make the best of the financial constraints provided, with no strategic direction and few opportunities for action to develop the school as an educational development organisation,” he says.

It's not about money

Nevertheless, several school leaders and municipalities are successful. The researchers highlight three things that characterise them:

  1. They have a clear strategy for where they want to go and have a close link with the municipality that administers them.
  2. They have politicians who understand and take an interest in school policies.
  3. They exercise leadership and manage to mobilise their colleagues to take advantage of the opportunities.

“The most important thing our report shows is that this is not about money. Here we have to use classic organisation and management theories to create organisations that give managers and leaders room for action,” Hye says.

About the research

  • The report was commissioned by the Association of School Leaders, and is entitled Skolene i den kommunale styringskjeden, og betydningen for skolelederes arbeidsvilkår (Schools in the municipal management chain and how it affects school leaders' working conditions).
  • The research was carried out by Harald Baldersheim, Linda Hye, and Morten Øgård at the Centre for Local Government Studies at the University of Agder.
  • The report is about school leaders in public primary and secondary schools and their experiences with municipal and county governance.
  • The figures are based on a survey of school leaders across the country. 539 people responded, mainly headteachers and unit managers. This gives a response rate of 45 per cent.
  • The report was launched at an event at Arendalsuka, an annual political festival in Norway, on 16 August.

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