School Achievement and Equity: Perspectives from Local Authorities, School Teachers and Principals
In a context of decentralisation of education that is underway in Portugal, implying a joint work of multiple stances and actors, this paper addresses the following research question: What do different actors – municipality’ education politicians and staff, on the one hand, and public school teachers and principals, on the other hand – say about school achievement and how do they relate it to equity?”
This paper results from a financed research project “Building Local Networking in Education? Decision-Makers Discourses on School Achievement and Dropout in Portugal” (FCT) that analyses the involvement of local authorities in networks regarding school improvement, in a framework of extended forms of citizenship and social justice (Arnot 2009, Bernstein 1996, Young 2000) and looks also to other actors’ perspectives, namely, public school teachers, principals and parent associations.
In what can be seen as a materialisation of democratic endeavours following the April 1974 revolution, government decentralisation is a tendency in Portugal, especially since the 1990’s, in fields like urban planning, health, energy, social welfare and education, among others. One of the pillars of decentralisation is the idea that municipalities (the most important local government structure in Portugal) are significantly closer to the people than central government and, therefore, they are seen as a locus of citizen participation and democratisation (Pinhal, 2011).
This happens in a European context concerned with democratisation and social justice (in spite of the current crises), which takes the rates of school dropout and completion as a factor to judge equity (Lamb, 2011). Moreover, an in-depth understanding of the factors related to dropout, connected to a broad appreciation of local conditions, are suggested to be crucial to inform policies on education (Markussen & Sandberg, 2011).
As in other European countries, earlier, education endeavour is in a restructuring route in Portugal, and is not exclusively the assignment of a centralised government, on one hand, and schools and parents, on the other, but tends to be the responsibility of multiple actors. In the conclusions of his research report about recent changes in the governing of education in 10 countries (Portugal included) and their repercussions for social inclusion/exclusion, Lindblad (2005) highlights the problematic of equity, noticing that the policies of centralisation/decentralisation should also focus in understanding local involvement and partnerships that promote participation of the civil society. It was observed, as well, that the perspectives of system actors and school actors about the problematic of equity did not seem different.
This sets us directly in an international context that stresses the role of networks and collaboration to innovation and policy changes in education (Chapman & Hadfield, 2010). But networks are not exempt of drawbacks, one of them the “potential clash between partners’ “cultures”, listed by Lima (2010), when reviewing the potential drawbacks of networks in education. In this context, it is crucial to understand the perspectives of the main actors involved in order to realize the ways they do (or do not) cooperate.
This project encompasses 13 districts across Portugal, examining an intentional sample of 22 municipalities, selected according to criteria such as higher school dropout rates, geographical location and population density. 66 interviews were carried out with local educational politicians and administrative staff, school representatives and parent associations.
If we consider Mason’s classification (1996) of the approaches on interview analysis (literal, interpretative and reflexive), the interpretative approach was followed since it was intended to apprehend the meanings attributed by the actors to school achievement issues.
Having in mind the research question above, a model of analysis was designed to display the similarities and contrasts, if any, between the views of actors most committed to educational decisions in municipalities with the views of school teachers and directors. The axes of this model inquire how actors explain school underachievement, what they say they do to elude it and promote equity and also what they say they would like to do; similar questions about what they think others do and should do.
Some findings relevant to this paper showed that local authorities seem to devote attention to their role in favour of educational success, more than stressing municipal programs that extend the legal framework (Araújo et al, 2013); municipalities educational staff appreciates schools deeds and recognizes the positive the role of networking on education, notwithstanding identifying a branch of difficulties (Costa et al, 2012).
The first insights through the lens of this model indicate that municipal actors see their role as a kind of supplier of pupils/families disadvantages. Also, they seem more prone to talk about equity as a goal and an explanation to justify policies and actions.
As to school actors, they recognize local authority efforts to support education, in spite of some discordant voices; they focus mostly on practical difficulties of managing their pupils’ problems, and they are prone to talk about multiple actors’ efforts to support education, either inside or outside school. Both types of actors do spontaneously give examples of partnership/networking as a strategy to foster school achievement and promote social justice.
These preliminary findings seem to have the potential to aid clarifying the way networking in education occurs and its place in promoting school achievement and equity.
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