Parents In Education-The Norwegian Case

1. Introduction

By August 1999 Norway was implementing a new education act which was passed by the Storting (the Parliament) in June 1998. This new act covers for the first time both compulsory education, that is primary education (age range 6-13, grades 1-7) and lower secondary education (ages 13-16, grades 8-10), and upper secondary education (grades 11 - 1 3/14) including grammar type as well as vocational type of post-compulsory education. In the present context we limit ourselves to the parent-school legislation and regulations, findings and considerations pertinent to compulsory or basic education. Actually, as regards the relationship between parents and teachers or home and school, the intentions and formal requirements stated by the prevailing 1969 Education Act (for basic education only) and subsequent regulations seem by and large to be kept unchanged in the new documents informing school practices into the next millennium. However, as is generally the case in education, as elsewhere, the formal statements are not necessarily transformed into practice according to the intentions behind them. A recent government white paper (see Section 3 below) presents the formal facts and actual knowledge as well as offers recommendations as to in which ways the school-home relations might be further improved to meet the intentions. Obviously, the deliberations and recommendations of this white paper constitute important ground-work for the formal regulations following the above-mentioned new education act. A draft version of such regulations is at present (March 1999) out for a general hearing.

In the following I will first point out the legislation and formal regulations which at present are governing parental participation in school affairs. Incidents where the new act or the regulations in progress, differs, or seem to differ, from the existing ones, will be specifically commented upon. Secondly, based on my own research and other studies I will try to describe how home-school relations and parental participation in school matters are functioning in Norwegian schools. In a final section I will comment briefly on the reasons why we are not likely ever to see all the intentions of good home-school relations fulfilled. Although that being the case this section also includes some recommendations as to how home-school relations might be improved.

2. Legislation and Regulations

According to the object clause of the prevailing 1969 Education Act, primary and lower secondary education shall "...in agreement and co-operation with the home ... help to give the pupils a Christian and moral upbringing etc.". (In the 1998 act the order of the words 'agreement' and 'co-operation' has been reversed.) Thus, the object clause clearly stresses the shared responsibility between home and school for a successful upbringing of the pupil. Nevertheless, the amount and quality of school-home relations may often be restricted to carrying out the formal minimum requirements which include:

A Co-operating Committee (samarbeidsutval) at each school consisting of two representatives of the teaching staff, one member of additional staff, two from the Parents' Council (see below), two pupils and two people representing the municipality, the one of whom being the headteacher. The Co-operating Committee, which is a consultative body for the headteacher and the Municipality Council, is entitled to voice its view in all matters concerning the school. (1969 Education Act, § 32, appearing in a slightly modified version as § 11 - 1 in the 1998 act.)

A Parents' Council (foreldrerdd) to promote the common interests of the parents and contribute to the active participation of parents and pupils in the creation of a good school environment. The Council should aim to: create a good relationship between the individual homes and the school, establish conditions which enhance the wellbeing and growth of the pupils and establish contact between the school and the local community. The Parents' Council has a Working Committee (Foreldrerfidets arbeidsutval) which also selects two parent representatives for the above-mentioned Co-operating Committee. (1969 Education Act, § 30, corresponding roughly to § 11 -4 in the new act.)

Class contacts, one female and one male parent, for each class to serve as a link between the parents and the Parents' Council, and the parents and the class teachers. (Section 62 of the 1989 Regulations for basic education from the Ministry of Education, Research and Church Affairs [referred to below as the Ministry of Education or MOE]). In the draft version of the new regulations there is no mention of these class contacts but such class contacts are taken for granted.

Conference hours, at least twice a year, between the school and the individual parent(s), preferably including the pupil, who, after the age of 12 years, has the right to participate (ibid., Section 9. 1). This, as well as the following requirement, is kept as § 2-2 in the draft version of the new regulations.

Routine use of 'book of messages (meldinsbok) for the exchange of information between home and school on home work, illness, application for absence etc. (Information on series misbehaviour has to be forwarded in a separate letter to the borne!)

The 1997 (National) Curriculum for the 10-years 'Basic School (Lxreplanverket for den 1O-Srige grunnskolen) has gained the status of regulation, thus being formally binding for the teachers' and the school's activities, not - as previous national curricula - having the status of guidelines. The following are excerpts from the section dealing with the relationship between home and school (pp 60-61):

"Schools support homes in the task of raising a new generation and preparing it for its tasks in society.

The main responsibility for bringing up children rests with their parental guardians, who must accordingly be given a share of the responsibility for schools. Co-operation between homes and schools is a mutual responsibility. Schools are under an obligation to provide suitable facilities for co-operation with homes. One requirement for successful co-operation is good communication, which calls for good information from schools to homes.

Homes and schools must seek together to promote the progress and development of pupils and keep each other informed. […]

Arrangements must be in place to enable parental guardians to play an active part in the development of the school, in ways and on a scale compatible with their other activities and jobs. []

Where each individual pupil is concerned, the chief responsibility for co-operation rests with class teachers and homes. Parental guardians join with teachers and pupils in establishing a good class environment. []

As class contacts, as representatives in co-operative bodies, and in other forms of co-operation, parental guardians have opportunities to influence and share in the responsibility for the class, the school community, and the part played by the school in its locality. It is also important for them to participate in school evaluation. School personnel, pupils and parents must co-operate in the elimination of teasing, bullying and other offensive behaviour (From a provisional translation prepared by the Ministry of education)."

In the light of these more general, still binding, statements in the Curriculum, some of the details in the present formal regulations may be seen as superfluous.

In addition to these arrangement for home-school relations at local level, there is a national level body, Foreldreutvalet for grunnskolen (FUG), in English translation the Parents' Committee for Basic Education. This body, which was established in 1976, authorised by law in 1988 and affirmed in § 11-9 of the 1998 act, has a counselling mandate with the Ministry of Education in matters relating to parents' interests and participation in education. Including the leader and deputy leader the FUG has seven members, all being appointed by the Ministry of Education among people already having demonstrated interest and dedication for home-school co-operation at local or municipal level in different parts of the country. The committee is carrying out information work and counselling services towards parents, schools and municipalities across the country.

3. Practising home - school co-operation

The formal requirements as to home-school contacts described above may, as we have seen, be traced back to the 1969 Education Act (for Basic Education) and subsequent national curricula and regulations. Over the years a number of studies have been carried out to look into the extent to which the formal requirements and the intentions behind them have been lived up to. Such research on teacher-parent relations suggests that the conference hours are, for the parents, the most highly valued form of contact with the school, although the discussions tend to be restricted to a narrow focus on the pupils' academic progress and school behaviour, whilst broader issues related to the family situation, peers and the local environment are left out. (Loken 1977, Kvalsund et al. 1991). Based on a number of case studies, Mellin-Olsen and Rasmussen (1 977) provide a very critical view of the role of the school in relation to pupils at odds with the system. They accuse the school of being more concerned with whitewashing itself by putting all the blame on the home rather than with co-operating and sharing responsibility with the parents.

In a study specifically designed to follow up whether or not the intentions behind the formalised school-home arrangements had been met Flo and Grondahl (1984) described the parent meetings at class and school level as empty bodies with a very limited say. Perhaps the situation has improved. In the above-mentioned Kvalsund et al, study covering 19 schools and 1,000 parents, almost 2/3 of the parents had taken part in the last arranged parents' meeting at class level, 1/3 of whom claimed the meeting to have been of great value, whereas the rest described the benefit as either modest or very limited. Parents having children in small schools were more likely to participate in parents' meetings at class or school level than those having pupils in larger schools. In another study from the early 90's, Lund (1991) focuses on the new demands made upon the teachers by the emphasis of the 1987 (National) Curriculum Guidelines on greater parental say in the running of a school which is supposedly more integrated with the local community. Building on extensive interviews of teachers and parents, the author stresses the importance of improved routines for co-operation and communication. For such co-operation to be successful there must be a willingness on both sides - i.e. parents and teachers - to accept mutual insight into their respective values, concerns and priorities.

I am now turning at some length to my own study of developments in Norwegian schools during the period of intensive in-service activities after the introduction of the 1987 (National) Curriculum Guidelines (Solstad 1997). During 1989-91 a relatively large scale follow-up study was carried out in the county of Nordland, covering all the around 300 basic schools (i.e. primary, lower secondary and combined primary and lower secondary) in the county. The survey data of this study, which also included some 20 case studies, focused particularly on the types of communication employed between school and home, on the degree of school staff commitment to home-school relations and on whether the scope of such contacts and relations seemed to be broadening in line with the more specified intentions of the then newly introduced 1987 Curriculum. The case studies also include interviews with parent representatives. A particular concern of the study was to identify whether practices on home-school relations were part of the school's policy or rather up to the individual class teacher(s).

That the home-school relationship was seen as important from the school's viewpoint is evidenced by the fact that it was by far the most commonly debated topic in planned staff discussions. Home-school matters were reported to have been debated in formal staff settings by 90 per cent of the schools compared to issues such as views on knowledge' by 65%, 'school and community' by 50%, and school and working life' by 30%. While home-school relations may form a popular theme there is little evidence in the data of any real consensus on how they can be fostered. In 1991, for example, while 62 per cent of the schools were agreed on the number of parent meetings per year, fewer than 40 per cent could agree on the organisation, content, length, and timing of them. It can be seen that the cultivation of genuinely joint school-parent-community activities is not proving easy.

Yet many schools were striving to improve matters. For example, about four in ten schools set up courses to introduce the elected parent representatives to the 1987 Curriculum. These were valued by teachers and parents. The following two comments from the case study interviews are reasonably typical:

"We arranged a course on school-home relations for staff and class contacts with an externally recruited course leader. This contributed to eliminating the distance between parents and teacher. We[the teachers] did not have to take the role of the teachers. The parents felt more secure when we were 'pupils' together " (Headteacher)

"I think it is very important for the class contacts to be trained. We have far too little knowledge about the new curriculum." (Chairperson. Parents' Working Committee)

Even when intentions are of the best, there can be a degree of reserve between parents and teachers about entering the domain of the other. This phenomenon, also noted by Lund (1991), is evident in the following quotation from a parent representative:

"It is surely difficult to bring something up with the teachers that may be within their area [of responsibility]. As a parent you don't have much of a say. Perhaps it has become a tradition, at least in rural areas, that we [the parents] just wait for the teachers to take the initiative. But I do think most teachers are happy if we do take initiatives. (Chairperson, Parents' Working Committee)

And from the other side:

"Our intentions was to get the parents to take the initiative, but we have not succeeded. ... The parents say they feel insecure. They are, however, positive and are keen to participate." (Teacher)

The data indicate a promising increase in the percentage of schools involving parents in school activities. For example, relative to 1989, when 50 per cent of schools involved parents as resource persons or specialists in particular topics, 65 per cent did so in 1991. However, the principal participation of parents tends to be in school sponsored activities such as class parties, ski days and excursions where in 1991 parents were reported to be participating by 80-90 per cent of the schools. Across the school types and sizes, 6 per cent or fewer involved parents in daily teaching, partly reflecting traditional attitudes among parents and teachers alike, and partly reflecting the fact that most parents, including mothers, are working during school hours. Although only a handful of the follow-up schools (the follow-up data, included only 107 schools) had carried out systematic mapping of parental knowledge and experience by 1991, the willingness and skills to involve parents occasionally in topic work seems to be improving, for 65 per cent of the schools reported such practice in 1991compared with only 50 per cent in 1989.

The schools were also asked to report on the kind of issues most frequently dealt with in meetings with the parents.

Principles on home work, the setting of behavioural limits and questions related to educating for co-responsibility were the most frequently mentioned issues, and all of these issues were more often debated in 1991 than in 1989. (Solstad 1997, pp 210-217)

A white paper, St rneld nr 14 (1997-98): Om foreldreniedverknad i gr-unnskolen (On Parental Participation in Basic Education) (MOE 1997), refers to a number of studies on home-school co-operation based on empirical data from the mid-90ies, that is from a period after the more intensive in-service and development activities following the 1987 curriculum reform (cf Solstad 1997, 'p 139). A study by Vestre (1995), covering a representative sample of parents having pupils in 3rd, 6th or 9th grade, indicates that most parents, actually 9 out of 10, are satisfied with the information provided by the schools. Almost all of the parents are judging the school to be listening to what they say, whereas some 15 per cent feel their ideas to be rejected by the school. Direct complaints towards the teacher or the school were voiced by 37 per cent of the parents, but no less than one third of these believed many other parents do not risk making complaints for fear such negative utterances might damage their own child. (MOE 1997, p 19.)

The white paper also refers to recent studies indicating that the parents' moderate interest in discussions on the content of the teaching and learning activities of the school is related to the settings for such participation established by the school. Development work in which parents as resource persons were actively drawn into the planning process indicates that parents may be happy to get far more involved in, and willing to take responsibilities for, the pupils learning activities than is usually considered to be the case. (Op.cit, pp 19-20.)

During spring 1997 the Ministry of Education carried out a survey particularly addressing the functioning of the Parents' Councils or, rather, of the working committees (WC) for these councils, the Parents' Working Committees (WC). The survey was designed to include a national sample of 1,000 schools of which, however, only a half returned the questionnaire. Thus the following main findings may arguably give a somewhat too optimistic picture of the situation:

94 per cent of the schools had pointed out class contacts;

13 per cent of the schools had arranged courses for the class contacts. (This percentage is markedly lower than the one indicated by rny own data from around 1990 referred to above. Perhaps such courses were deemed more necessary in the period just after the introduction of a new curriculum?);

79 per cent of the new WCs were informed about their tasks by the headteacher, 64 per cent by members of the retiring WC;

67 per cent of the WCs regarded their co-operation with the Co-operating Council to be good or very good, and 87 per cent judged the co-operation with the head or deputy head to be of that quality;

51 per cent of the WCs were asked by municipality bodies or representatives to take part in discussions on matters related to their school. (Op.cit., p 21).

As pointed out to in Section 2 above, each school has a Co-operating Committee serving in a consultative capacity for the headteacher (or ultimately the Municipality Council) formally being in charge of the running of the school. Being just 2 out of 9 members' in the council the parents constitute a clear minority in this body in which power anyway is quite limited. As part of a more comprehensive tryout of alternative local government arrangements the rural municipality of Sund, south-western Norway, were during the period 1988-95 granted permission to introduce, school councils' (skolestyre) for each of its schools with the stated aim to "...give the parents real influence through a committed co-operation with the school, and to give the employees a greater say on their working environment'. The parents, elected within the body of all parents having children in the school, made up the majority of this council which also included representatives for the staff pointed out by the union(s). The headteacher served as the secretary for the council which was trusted the final say in matters such as budgeting, time-tabling, local curricula, and disciplinary affairs. An external evaluation of this set up was carried out, the main findings of which were:

As laypersons, not knowing enough about school matters, the parents often felt themselves 'over run' by the teachers who, in the view of the parents, were using the council for union politics purposes;

Real parental influence in the council was wholly depending on the attitudes of the headteacher and the ways in which he/she planned the meetings. In most cases the parents felt their say to be very limited;

Parental influence was heavily restricted due to a highly regulated school system in which a large part of the power is in the hands of the teachers anyway;

Most of the parents were not seen to be more engaged in school matters than before the introduction of these school councils for each school. (Ibid.).

The evaluators had to conclude that this new set up could not be seen to contribute to an improved local democracy within basic education. As a possible explanation for this finding the researchers referred to the rural setting of the experiment. The average level of education among the parents is lower and the respect for the teachers higher than in more urban settings. The reporting on a somewhat similar experiment covering four schools in the urban municipality of Kristiansand, provides some support for this interpretation. In this study, where the experiment schools post facto were compared with four other schools having the traditional arrangements, the class contacts and the parents in general of the experiment schools felt to be more able to voice their views, experienced more of open discussions on equal terms with the teachers and enjoyed more influence on school matters than was the case for the parents of the four control schools. Though the method of evaluation may be questioned, it is interesting to note that the Municipality Council of Kristiansand has now decided to introduce such school level councils for all its plus 30 schools, whereas, as we have seen, the Municipality Council of Sund decided to return to the standard arrangements. (Op.cit., p 21-22.)

4. Conclusions and recommendations

In Section 2 above I have outlined the formal arrangements within Norwegian public education designed to give parents the necessary information on, participation in and influence over the running of the schools. This fulfils the requirement of the object clause of the Education Act stating that basic education in co-operation and agreement with the home should help to bring about the learning and development of the pupils specified by the Act and by subsequent national curricula. Furthermore, in Section 3, I have presented, though briefly, most of the research in Norway looking into the degree to which the various arrangements function according to the intentions. In this concluding section I will first, on the basis of the research works referred to, make some broad statements on the factual situation as to home-school relationships before finally, and courteously, offering a few recommendations as to in which ways the gap between the intentions set and the actual state of affairs could be further narrowed.

The research findings may roughly be summarised like this:

The statutory minimum, the formal set-ups, for home-school contacts are generally met by the schools.

In most schools, there seems to be little formal agreement within the teaching staff on the organisation and content of the compulsory school-parent meetings beyond fixing the number of such meetings during the school year. Nevertheless, the issue of home-school contacts has a high priority in planned whole staff debates.

Though the parents seem to be largely satisfied with the information provided by the schools, a substantial fraction of the parents do not feel the school to be listening to what they are saying. Some data suggest that parents may be reluctant to voice direct complaints fearing their children might be negatively sanctioned by the school.

The kind of home-school contact most appreciated by the parents is the conference hours directly focussing on the individual child of the parent(s) involved.

Parental involvement in school activities is generally restricted to such occasions as class parties, Christmas workshops and excursions. It also seems, however, to be increasingly commonplace to draw on parental knowledge in regular school work when dealing with specific topics. Parental involvement in ordinary school activities on a regular basis is rare.

The extent to which the school discusses educational issues with the parents is limited. Only about half of the schools claim to do so. Issues relating to homework and defining limits for the pupils' behaviour are the issues most frequently dealt with in joint parent-teacher settings.

Most parents are not only willing, but are positively interested in greater involvement on a broader scale in school related activities.

Introducing school councils with a formalised and greater say in the running of the school than what the statutory Co-operating Committee allows for does not necessarily lead to an increased parental influence, or to a generally broader parental participation in school matters.

The notion of running compulsory basic education as a joint home-school enterprise, and on the terms of shared responsibility between parents and teachers, is a demanding one indeed.

Firstly, though wishful thinking may point otherwise, it is impossible to disregard the fact that many parents are neither interested, nor qualified or fit for entering into this kind of home-school partnership. This applies to rural as well as urban settings. L

Secondly, in Norway we have a highly decentralised system of school governance in which each of the 435 municipalities, a number of which having less than 1,000 people, is in charge of providing an equitable education for all. Paradoxically, in order to meet the ideal of equity in the education provision within a system of great local freedom, the national level authorities have enforced rather detailed regulations as to teacher qualifications, class sizes, curricular matters - and, as we have seen, home-school relations. Democratic arrangements are not easily functioning in a satisfactory way when there is very little left to be decided upon. Both these dilemmas have in various ways come through in the research works presented in this paper.

Still, even though an ideal situation of all parents being involved on equal terms with the teaching staff in deciding upon and carrying out an equitable education for all pupils may be nothing less than utopian, some suggestions as to in which ways home-school relations may be improved within the Norwegian setting may be offered:

As indicated by research evidence, arranging courses to train the parents, at least those who are the class contacts, and for the task of home-school co-operation, is likely to stimulate parental involvement and initiatives. Preferably, such training programmes should be organised in such a way that parent representatives and members of the teaching staff are participating on equal terms.

The attitudes and skills of the school leadership are known to be of great importance for school development generally. Developing home-school relations is no exception. Therefore, any programme for leadership in-service education should pay attention to this issue. In fact, without the keen co-operation and support of the parents, any school development may prove difficult to advance and sustain.

To engage parents on a broader scale and in real learning pursuits, the parents should be involved at an early stage and on a participatory basis in the planning processes, for example in relation to project work, theme programmes and learning excursions.

Karl Jan Solstad


References:

Flo, K.M. and Grondahl, S.E. (1984): Samarbeid i grunnskolen: skole - hjem - ridsorganer. (Co-operation in Basic Education: School - Home Councils.) Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Kvalsund, R., Lovik, P. And Mykiebust, J.0. (1 99 I): Relasjonar som raknar? (Braking Relations?) Volda: Moreforsking.

Lund,K.(1991):Erdettemittbord?(IsThisMyResponsibility?)Oslo:UniversitetetiOslo.(Dissertation).

Lov om grunnskolen av 1969. (The 1969 Basic Education Act.)

Lov orn grunnskolen og den vidareghande opplxringa av 1998. (The 1998 Act on Basic Education and Upper Secondary Education.)

Lxreplanverket for den 10-@ge grunnsksolen. (The [1997 National] Curriculum for the 10-Years' Basic School.)

Loken, R. (1977): Samarbeid heim/skole. (Co-operation Home/School.) Oslo: Universitetet i Oslo. (Dissertation.)

Mellin-Olsen, S. and Rasmussen, R. (1975): Skolens vold. (The Violence of the School.) Oslo: Pax.

MOE (Ministry of Education, Research and Church Affairs, 1989): Forskrift for grunnskolen. (Regulations for Basic Education.)

MOE(1997): Stmeld nrl4(1997-98). Om foreldremedverknadi gnmnskolen. (White Paperno 14 (1997-98). On Parental Participation in Basic Education.)

MOE (1999): Forskri ft til opplxringsiova. Hoyringsutkast. (Regulations Connected to the Education Act. Draft Version.)

Solstad, K.J. (1997): Equity at Risk. Planned Educational Change in Norway: Pitfalls and Progress. Oslo: Scandinavian University Press.

Vestre, S. E. (1995): Foreldresyn pi grunnskolen. (Parents' View on Basic Education.) Oslo: KUF.