“The findings are astounding. I understand well why many are leaving the profession,” says Professor Morten Øgård.
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 the Association of School Heads (Skolelederforbundet). 539 senior leaders from primary and secondary schools participated, which makes the results representative of the country as a whole.
“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,” says Professor Morten Øgård at UiA.
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 once they do, several of them are controlled to death by top-down managed organisations that would rather control and manage than stimulate innovative thinking,” Øgård says.
He calls the findings astounding.
“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 reported particularly 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 about good schools and kindergartens. The municipalities need to prioritise children and young people,” he says.
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,” says researcher Linda Hye at UiA.
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,” Hye says.
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 their opportunities to influence are in fact few.
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 less control over.
“The development work that school leaders actually want to do, and which we know from major international surveys is the most important thing we can do to influence children's learning and development, is limited because headteachers are not able to prioritise it.”
He says that 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 dilettantish administrative units that try to make the best of the financial framework that is made available, zero strategic direction, and get opportunities for action with a view to developing the school as an educational development organisation,” Øgård says.
Nevertheless, several school leaders and municipalities are successful. The researchers highlight three things that characterise them:
“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.