Author(s):Malin Ideland (presenting), Anna Jobér (presenting), Margareta Serder, Thom Axelsson

Conference:ECER 2016, Leading Education: The Distinct Contributions of Educational Research and Researchers

Network:28. Sociologies of Education


Session Information

28 SES 08, Sociomaterial Accounts of Education

Paper Session



Chair:Camilla Addey


Helping hands? Exploring school’s external actor-networks.

During the last decade, the “failure” of the Swedish educational system has been frequently reported in the public debate. Due to this, a large edu-political apparatus has been implemented in a tremendous pace, for instance teacher legitimation and new curricula. Aside from these politically organized reforms, we can see a growing apparatus of “helping” actors, changing the educational landscape in Sweden as well in Europe. On the international arena McKinsey & Company, the OECD and Pearson Education are examples of big international edu-business, influencing national school systems all over the world (Gorur, 2011; Tröhler, 2009). Meanwhile, there is an emerging field of “helping” actors on a national level, for instance The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise´s (CSE) and private companies’ support of the teacher education Teach for Sweden, learning game developers, companies organizing and assessing schools, homework companies, teaching materials developed by Non Governmental Organizations. These actors come into being in a discourse of knowledge-based economy (Ball, 2012; Lawn & Grek, 2012) and a school crisis. School’s failure becomes translated into an underused potential to foster employable, internationally competitive and flexible citizens, inviting different actors, often lacking formal educational expertise, to “help”.


The discourse of a Swedish schools crisis has come into being through a set of neoliberal ideals shaping common sense ways of imagining and practicing schooling (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010; Savage et al, 2013), such as “transparent” testing and rankings (Ball, 2012; Connell, 2013) with certain implications on educational system as well as other sectors of society, producing strategies, activities as well as subjectivities (Simons & Masschelein, 2008; Popkewitz, 2011; Serder & Ideland, 2015). As well, in the heart of neoliberalism lies the idea that individuals are free, but also obliged, to create their life trajectories through informed choices and life-long learning (Kaščák & Pupala, 2011). This opens up for edu-business activities also in students’ leisure time. 


In a recently started project we study “helping” actors and practices on a national level to show a Swedish example of the current transformation of education in Europe. We look at the phenomenon as an actor-network unfolding outside the formal edu-political systems, in a myriad of connections (Fenwick, 2011). The marketisation of education and the impact of knowledge economy have been extensively studied on a macro-level, with a neoliberal agenda pointed out and criticised for everything from school profits to emerging poverty (Connell, 2013). Here we leave the well-studied macro-level for near-sighted investigations of how the educational crisis in the knowledge economy unfolds in an unruly landscape outside formal educational systems.


The purpose of the overall project is to study with what aims, under what conditions, in what forms and with which consequences non-educational actors engage in Swedish schools. This will be done through exploring enactments and negotiations of the discourse of Swedish school in crisis in and through contexts and activities outside the formal edu-political system. However, this specific paper presents results from the first part of the project, a pre-study in the shape of a network analysis built on netographic and ethnographic investigations of different actors in the external network. The questions are: How are edu-political discourses translated and materialised through different practices and negotiations in the network? What kinds of different actors are trying to “help” Swedish school and how are they linked to each other? What kinds of problems are they offering solutions to and with which means? In what ways do they legitimate their “help”? The study contributes to the understanding of politically un-governed enactments of the well-described marketisation of school, how the marketization in combination with an experienced crisis open up for new actions and actors.


As mentioned above, this study is a pre-study for a larger project in which external actors will be closely studied through ethnographic fieldwork and an actor-network analysis (c.f. Fenwick, 2015). In this pre-study we perform netographically mapping of organisa-tions and companies constituting schools’ external actor-network. Without any claims to cover all actors, we have conducted the following netographic mapping: 1) Internet searches through words related to edu-business, such as “tutoring”, “teacher’s room”, “teaching material”, “educational company”, “school coach”, “school assessment”, etc.; 2) Searches departing from programs for national and local educational “trade fairs”, websites collecting and providing teaching material and similar; 3) Searches departing from interviews with teachers and headmasters about what kinds of external actors that are “helping” their schools. These interviews are conducted in schools in different socio-economic areas, urban and rural areas, characterized by different social classes. However, that comparison will not be analysed or discussed in this paper.

For the initial analysis we use a topographic network method, developed by Ball (2012). Through a topographic map of different actors in the network, we intend to chart and qualitatively analyse different kinds of governing, collaborations and nodes – activities and actors developed in relation to a specific problem to be solved. This is not an actor-network analysis in the sense of Latour (2005), since it investigates a structural level rather than what is happening on a micro-level inside the actor-network. Rather, it is influenced by later sociomaterialist perspectives (Fenwick, 2015). this method can give important contributions to understand the kinds of external actors influencing the educational system, how they are connected to each other and how they legitimate them-selves to be a part of everyday schooling through answering to specific problems. The topographic map foremost illustrates what areas external actors are involved in and what kinds of problems they intend to solve. Are there any specific problems that are especially interesting for the edu-market.

Expected Outcomes

The investigation is on-going, and the results are preliminary. Easy to state is that the external network is an unruly landscape with different kinds of actors. Important actors are NGO:s, offering teaching material, e.g. in the field of education for sustainable devel-opment (ESD). The responsibility to foster students into a sustainable lifestyle is distrib-uted and translated by many actors. The amount of actors willing to help school in sus-tainability issues might be explained in terms of the experienced importance of the con-tent. Another explanation of why NGO teaching material is frequently used is that the subject ESD is “extra-ordinary”; it is not a well-defined school subject with learning outcomes on its own but instead often carried out as a special theme. On the other hand, the PISA subjects (math, science, reading) are also focused by external actors. Not least tutoring companies offer services in these subjects (Jobér, 2015). The discourse of Swe-dish education in crisis opens up for actors solving the problem of the nation lacking scientifically literate citizens, who carry the hope of economic growth.

A third focus for external actors is in-service training of teachers and school development. A growing market offers school coaches and assessment of teacher skills. Also environ-mental NGO’s are offering school development in terms of so called “model school” for sustainable development. We ask: are these entrepreneurs’ undertakings an answer to societal demands on competition as well as evidence-based practice.

From these preliminary results we recognize the field as complex and multifaceted and important to scrutinize for further understanding. How should we interpret the combina-tion of a neoliberal agenda characterized by a combination of individualism, competition and a belief in science with the efforts to help –students, schools and in the case of ESD: the world.


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Author Information

Malin Ideland (presenting)
Malmö University, Sweden
Anna Jobér (presenting)
Malmö University
Faculty of Education and Society
Margareta Serder
Kommunförbundet Skåne
Thom Axelsson
Malmo University
Education och Society