Sweden - Parents in school decision making around the world The Swedish Experience

1.1 Recent and current legislation

1.2 Fundamental principles and legislation for state schools

A fundamental principle of the Swedish education system is that everybody must have access to equivalent education, regardless of ethnic and social background and place of residence. Compulsory school and upper secondary school are both comprehensive, designed to accommodate all members of the young generation; and all schools are co-educational.

The curricula for compulsory and upper secondary education are valid nation-wide. State regulations for the education system are set out in the Education Act and in a number of ordinances. From 1 January 1998 state regulations for pre-schools are included in the Education Act.

The present Swedish Local Government Act of 1991 contains provisions about both consultative and managerial user participation. In some special laws there are also provisions about consultative participation.

1.3 Parental Participation

The majority of municipalities report that they have some form of joint collaboration or are on the way to establish this. These collaborations can operate differently and can use different terms but essentially they are not so very different from each other.

On the whole they can be categorised into two types: either simply information and consultation bodies with the headmaster as decision-maker or some form of collaboration where the headmaster has conditionally delegated certain decision making powers. Only in exceptional cases are there collaborations where parents are in the majority.

1.4 Consultation

In accordance with the Swedish Local Government Act of 1991 (chapter 6, paragraph 8) various committees of the municipalities shall work towards consultation with those who use the services. For instance pensioners councils, disability councils or administrative councils at schools. These councils have first and foremost the function to be a forum for the exchange of information and discussion. There are no instructions as to the ways in which user influence shall be realised and the representatives for the users in these types of councils lack decision making powers.

1.5 Conditional Delegation

Conditional delegation means that the user representatives are allowed to participate when an employee (in this case headmaster) makes a decision which has been delegated down from the Local Education Authority (Swedish Local Government Act chapter 6, paragraph 38). Those who have used the services (in this case parents) should be given an opportunity to put forward proposals or to speak out on issues before decisions are taken. Alternatively, the employee may make a decision only if the user representatives have approved the decision.

1.6 User controlled self-governing bodies

As a third alternative for parental influence are the user controlled self governing bodies. Since 1st July 1994 in accordance with Swedish Local Government Act chapter 7 there is a possibility for the users at local facilities or institutions to have the right to participate and make decisions about their operation. A user controlled self governing body shall consist of representatives of those who use the facility or institution and the employees. The user representatives shall be in the majority.

In March 1996 Parliament decided that during a five year trial period the municipality could, if they wished, establish a local governing body in the nine year compulsory school and schools for those with learning difficulties. The government bill (1995/96:157) was based on the School Committee’s interim report "Parents in self-governing schools" (SOU 1995:103). The trials take place between 15 July 1996 and 30 June 2001 and the National Agency for Education was assigned to evaluate these trials. During the trial period the Local Education Authority may delegate some of the responsibilities and decision making functions (which currently lie within the scope of the Local Education Authority or headmaster) to the local governing body with parental majority. The trials are governed within - Ordinance for trials with local governing bodies in the School (SFS 1996:605).

Through a change in the ordinance (SFS 1997:643) representatives for the students, as from 1 August 1997, may be a part of the local governing body. The headmasters are always members of the governing body. From 1 August 1998, pre-schools and after-school recreation centres have also been part of the trials (SFS 1998:749).

2.1 Membership and power accorded to local school boards

The local governing bodies with a parental majority, established by the different municipalities, are regulated by the provisions governing self-run bodies (as stated in the Local Government Act of 1991). Parents must form a majority of the members. The trials from 1996 are voluntary for the municipalities. The local government assembly authorises the local school board to enter into the experiment and delegate to it a number of tasks enumerated in the ordinances. Thus the tasks of the local school board can vary from one school to another and from one municipality to another.

An excerpt from the trial ordinances (SFS 1998:749) will provide an outline the membership and key tasks::

  1. A local governing body can include a whole school or part of a school.
  2. In a local governing body the members shall include representatives for the students’ guardianship and for those employed in the school. The headmaster must always be a member of the body. Representatives of the students are also entitled to be members of the governing body. The Local Education Authority is allowed to decide on who else can be a member of the body.
  3. Representatives for the students shall have the right to attend and express opinions at the meetings.
  4. The following tasks which, in accordance with the legislation for compulsory education (1994:1194), rest upon the Local Education Authority may be delegated to a local governing body:
  • to decide on the distribution of hours
  • to be responsible for offering students a comprehensive choice of subjects from which to chose (in accordance with chapter 2, paragraph 20), and
  • to decide on teaching. Ordinance (1997:643);
  1. The following tasks which, in accordance with the legislation for compulsory education (1994:1194), rest with the headmaster may be delegated to the local governing body:
  • to decide on outdoor activities
  • to decide on the school's election, and
  • to decide on the school work plan
  1. In addition the following tasks which rest with the headmaster may be delegated to a local governing body.
  • the responsibility for the local work plan,
  • design of the school’s work environment,
  • the competence development which is necessary for the teaching staff to be able to carry out their duties professionally,
  • the development of forms for collaboration between the school and the home and developing ways of informing parents about the school’s objectives, ways of working and choice of alternatives,
  • the establishment, implementation, follow-up and evaluation of the school’s plan of action to prevent and counteract all forms of abusive treatment, such as bullying and racist behaviour among students and teaching staff,
  • development of collaboration between pre-schools, schools and after school recreation centres in order to support every pupil’s multi-faceted development and learning,
  • co-operation with pre-schools in order to create a basis for a common vision and a trusting collaboration,
  • co-operation with receiving schools and the work life outside the school, and,
  • the development of the school’s international contacts.

3.1 Relationship between the local and central government

Sweden has a long-standing tradition of local self-government and has actually 289 municipalities and 21 counties after the latest municipal amalgamation reform. The representatives of the self-government of both municipalities and counties are elected by the inhabitants through proportional representation.

The local governing bodies in the municipality are self-governing and have been established with support from the Swedish Local Government Act and the ordinance on trials with local governing bodies in schools. The local governing body reports to the Local Education Authority and is responsible for the operation of the school. Tasks normally within the authority of the headmaster or Local Education Authority can in this way be transferred to the local governing body. The local governing body’s responsibility and authority is regulated in a set of rules and procedures which shall include the governing body’s tasks, constitution, method of work and term of office.

4.1 The process of selecting and electing parental representatives

The initiative to set up a local governing board is meant to be local. This first step is often taken by the headmaster or a group of parents who set up a working group. Its purpose is to investigate the interest to commit oneself to a local board.

The working group, or interim governing body, has the right to put forward suggestions on how many members and substitute members shall be part of the local governing body and how the seats shall be divided between the different groups represented in the governing body. Who is eligible to be elected shall be discussed and defined, along with how the nominations and voting procedure shall be implemented. At one school all the parents had the right to hand in a written nomination for a representative to the headmaster. One could nominate oneself and other candidates. The headmaster then analysed these nominations to see who would stand for election. The parents were then able to vote for the nominated candidates. The election of chairperson and vice-chairperson is often transferred to the local governing body for themselves to decide.

The Local Education Authority decides on the composition of the local governing-body. Representatives of the parents or guardians must form the majority. The board must include representatives of the teaching staff and other employees of the school. The headmaster is always a member. The Local Education Authority can also decide if representatives of the students or representatives from the school management district shall participate as elected members of the board.

The rules laid out in The Swedish Local Government Act on decision making and the recording of minutes in the committee shall be adhered to by the local governing body.

5.1 The nature and provision of training for parental representatives

The trials with local governing bodies with a parental majority have come about in most cases through local initiatives. This implies that any arrangement for training of members in the governing body depends on their qualifications and needs. The training, as a general rule, is planned locally with the support of the headmaster and the Local Education Authority’s approval. There are still municipalities which have planned training for the parents from a central level. This training, when offered, has shown to be of interest to the school teaching staff who want to learn more about how a school is organised and run.

There has been no financial support or reference material given by the state. The purpose of the National Agency for Education is to follow closely the developments so they are able to evaluate its progress. Evaluations are initiated at regular intervals and the results from these evaluations will form the basis of the final evaluation with suggestions for how parental influence should be strengthened in the future.

Approximately one quarter of Sweden’s municipalities participate with one or more schools in the trials.

6.1 The National Agency for Education’s first evaluation

The National Agency for Education’s first evaluation during the spring of 1998 focused on the background and prerequisites for establishing local governing bodies. To capture the process when schools decided to establish local governing bodies, group discussions were carried out with representatives for parents, students and teachers. In-depth interviews were held with headmasters.

For all the schools in the study, with one exception, staff expressed varying degrees of fear when the establishment of a local governing body was first mentioned. The fear principally concerned an uncertainty over the parents’ mandate. Today, however, all the interviewed teachers expressed a more or less positive attitude towards the existence of local governing bodies. Some are very positive and see that members of the governing body have accomplished things which otherwise would not have been achieved. As one teacher said, "At first I wondered what their role would be. Will they have opinions on how we work in the classroom? But now, when I see how it works, I think it’s great".

In schools where staff thought the local governing body had not actually accomplished much they nevertheless had confidence in the governing body’s future efforts. It also emerged from the report, that all schools participating in the trials, in different ways, were heavily involved in some form of change process. This change process, to a greater or lesser degree, made its mark on the whole school’s activity. Another common characteristic was that headmasters were very positive and in most cases strongly pushing to create a local governing body. One headmaster claimed he had not experienced a decrease in his authority. "Absolutely not! In one way my authority has perhaps been strengthened and I enter into discussions in a different way, more methodically. It means that I secure support at a very early stage. I think that affects my ability to promote development at this school."

A characteristic of all the investigated schools was that it took time, in most cases a very long time, to establish a local governing body. The person responsible for schools in the individual municipalities, when interviewed, was positive or very positive to the establishment of local governing bodies. Despite this basically positive attitude they still voiced a number of reservations.

7.1 Conclusion

With the above as a background it is likely to be a delicate balancing act for those municipalities wishing to establish local governing bodies. The interest has to develop locally and the local authority should not decide over the heads of the proposed local governing bodies. The best foundation for a local governing body is probably that parents and staff are given a free hand in defining the framework for its activity. It is also important to have support from the local authority, who should be willing to meet each local governing body and discuss the specific needs and requirements as defined by that local governing body.

Interest in creating local governing bodies has levelled out after a considerable rise during the second year of the planned trials, but new bodies are still being set up all the time. Findings from the second evaluation (which takes place in the spring of 1999) are expected to be published. The governing bodies’ internal work will then be focused. In many municipalities the local governing bodies have been met with great confidence and have taken on extensive responsibility. They are allowed to decide, not only on the questions concerning the trials, but they have also received the mandate of their municipalities to take on a greater responsibility for the school’s operation.

The local governing bodies have come to stay, but not presumably to be forced on the whole of Swedish compulsory schools and schools for those with learning difficulties. If the parents, teaching staff and management, locally, and on their own initiative, want to create a local governing body it should be possible. An active user influence presumes a local commitment, not central decrees.

John Evertsson


Demokrati pa prov. Erfarenheter av fö rsö ksverksamheten med fö raldrastyrda skolor, (Democracy on trial - Experiences of the trials with parent governed schools.)

December 1997, Adreas Duit and Tommy Moller, Institution of Political Science, Stockholm University.

Fö raldrar I skiolan - ar det na’t att ha (Parents in school - is it something to have?)

A description of what happened when a number of schools decided to establish local governing bodies with parental majority, September 1998, Elisabeth Ritchey, PhD Pedagogy