Participation of various actors and conflicts of knowledge within public action for school autonomy and management

Printable version of the article  
Send this article by mail  
 
 

In Portugal, the knowledge mobilized and registered in the discussions over school autonomy and management is at the origin of one of the main conflicts amongst the various actors of public-policy making. This is the result of a lack of common grounds between the existing “supply” in the academic world of education sciences, as part of the educational administration area, and the “demand” by the personnel of the Ministry of Education for “useful” knowledge to guide the policy-making process.

The involvement of different actors and different kinds of knowledge, in different scenes, is one of the features of all public action. In this process it is natural that actors with different interests and points of view, and acting in “different scenes” do not produce and do not use the same knowledge. This diversity is, very often, a source of conflict and dispute, as shown in the case of public action on school autonomy and management, in Portugal.

On the one hand, the academic production is dominated by a critical perspective that is heavily influenced by the sociology of organizations (“sociology of the school”) and by the political study to educational phenomena. On the other hand, the Education Ministers call for the need, above all to undertake “evaluation research” studies, in order to identify “problems” and to formulate decisions. This mismatch (which is a source of potential conflicts) is further accentuated by the fact that the “timing” of the academic research is very often not compatible with the “timing” of the policy decision, which causes dissatisfaction as it was described in the report about this matter.

Obviously, these potentially antagonistic differences in opinion do not always translate into full-blown conflicts. Sometimes a convergence of knowledge (or at least a joint mobilization thereof) is attempted in the various scenes where public action takes place. For example, committees or taskforces bringing together different types of actors (academics, school managers and civil servants, at the central or regional levels) were created upon initiative of the Ministers of Education to support the decision-making process. These taskforces sometimes produce a “hybrid knowledge”, combining mixed scientific approaches based on “new public management”, “bureaucracy”, “pedagogy”, “organizational analysis” and “studies on schools effectiveness”, etc., while simultaneously cross-referencing the “academic” knowledge with the knowledge obtained by the actors in their practice with given policies and the legal-administrative framework. This was particularly visible in the negotiation of the “autonomy contracts”.

While these knowledge conflicts are evident in the articulation between the academic environment and the decision-makers at the Ministry of Education, they have also emerged in other areas (deliberative and non-deliberative) where school autonomy and management are publicly debated, such as in Parliament, newspapers, “talk events” and higher education institutions. This debate mobilized a wide range of knowledge and actors, though it was common for the same actors to take part (above all certain academics and specialists) in different debates and different scenes. As we saw, although the kind of knowledge mobilized in these debates is wide-ranging, the use of scientific knowledge is per se extremely scarce.

In the case of parliamentary debates, the members of Parliament who participated in the plenary meetings where this theme was addressed only rarely made general references to studies or experts to back up their criticism or proposals, and never presented information or data taken from scientific or expert studies. Their interventions were mainly supported by beliefs and ideas generated by their ideological convictions or political party strategies. The argument in favor or against proposals from various governments and parties involved was often based on foreign examples or on the experiences of teachers or schools, but no reference was made to empirical data or evidence.

As far as the press is concerned, the aforementioned case highlights the existence of an “advocacy coalition” which defends positions favoring “school choice” by families, “vouchers”, the creation of “education markets”, professional management, etc. These positions are expressed in editorials, opinion articles, interviews, reports and letters to the director. In this type of rhetoric, the arguments put forward generally tend to refer to a technical rationality (supposedly neutral from a political point of view) that separates “right” from “wrong” and “good policies” from “bad policies”. Nevertheless, in this instance, studies and information founded on research or academic knowledge are scarcely used, even more so in the case of knowledge from “education sciences”.

A discussion event is the public space par excellence to find the greatest number of references to studies and research produced by academics or experts. Individuals with school management responsibilities often participate to these types of events to share the practical knowledge they acquired in their personal experiences or the knowledge produced in their post-graduate studies.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the public debate promoted by institutions of higher education (per se or in articulation with professional and scientific associations) is relevant, but few initiatives have been organized because of the few numbers of institutions. This type of event brings together the highest concentration of people and documents related to research and specialized knowledge production. However, this academic and scientific community is rarely the showcase for a confrontation of ideas. Instead, the combined presentation of studies, findings and different points of view fill in for actual debates.

A final word must be said about the extent to which the growing use of “scientific evidence” as means of legitimization or information for the decision-maker (“knowledge or evidence based policy”) has influenced the increased political conditioning of the scientific production itself. This conditioning has an impact on the topics studied (quality assessment, leadership effects, effectiveness of management models, good practices, international comparisons, etc.), the methodologies adopted (operational research, input-output analyses, extensive studies, use of indicators, etc.), and how the results are presented (short reports containing little “theory” and geared towards problem identification and problem solving).

However, as the ministers interviewed attest, the characteristics displayed in academic production in education sciences, in particular in the area of educational administration, have not been “suitable” for solving existing problems. Therefore, after an initial phase of legislative preparation, preceded by studies conducted by specialists and university teachers (albeit with the collaboration of ministerial officers), we have recently observed that the Ministry of Education has been tempted to create in its core a “techno-structure” capable of producing its own “state knowledge” compatible with the “needs” of said Ministry (see Barroso et al, 2008). This knowledge is mostly based on “evaluation research” and the recognition of “good practices” (Lessard, 2008, pp. 562-563), and very often involves disciplinary areas different from education sciences (statistics, company management, social psychology, etc.). In this process we are not witnessing a mere “transfer of knowledge”, but rather the creation of applied cross-disciplinary knowledge. Or, as Nassehi puts it (2008): “We are increasingly aware that we are in the presence of a transformation process, rather than a transportation process”.

As such, on the one hand, knowledge is indeed produced, but is not used by decision-makers at the Ministry of Education, either because it does not “converge” with their political orientations, or because it is excessively critical or cannot be implemented. However, this same knowledge can be used to guide the participation of unions, schools and experts in the public action process. On the other hand, there is a “lack of knowledge” at the core of the specific jobs commissioned by the Ministry or even the unions and other associations. This knowledge gap is the reason why the Ministry of Education created its own centers of knowledge production within its own techno-structure.

The involvement of different actors and different kinds of knowledge, in different scenes, is one of the features of all public action. In this process it is natural that actors with different interests and points of view, and acting in “different scenes” do not produce and do not use the same knowledge. This diversity is, very often, a source of conflict and dispute, as shown in the case of public action on school autonomy and management, in Portugal.

On the one hand, the academic production is dominated by a critical perspective that is heavily influenced by the sociology of organisations (“sociology of the school”) and by the political study to educational phenomena. On the other hand, the Education Ministers call for the need, above all to undertake “evaluation research” studies, in order to identify “problems” and to formulate decisions. This mismatch (which is a source of potential conflicts) is further accentuated by the fact that the “timing” of the academic research is very often not compatible with the “timing” of the policy decision, which causes dissatisfaction as it was described in the report about this matter.

Obviously, these differences in opinion (potentially antagonistic) are not always translated into expressed conflicts, and there is sometimes an attempt at convergence (or at least joint mobilisation) of knowledge woven to the different scenes of public action. This is the case, for example, of the creation (on the initiative of the Ministers of Education) of committees or taskforces to support for decision making and which brings together different kinds of actors (academics, school managers and civil servants, at central or regional level). These taskforces sometimes produce “hybrid knowledge” that mixes scientific approaches inspired on “new public management”, “bureaucracy”, “pedagogy”, “organisational analysis” and “studies on schools effectiveness”, etc, and which simultaneously cross-reference “academic” knowledge with the knowledge derived from the practices of actors, from given policies and from the legal-administrative framework, as it was particularly visible in the negotiation of the “autonomy contracts”.

While these knowledge conflicts were evident as regards the articulation between the academic environment and the Ministry of Education decision makers, they also emerged in other scenes (deliberative and non-deliberative) where the public debate was played out concerning school autonomy and management, especially in Parliament, newspapers, “talk events” and higher education institutions. This debate included the mobilisation of a wide range of knowledge and actors, although it was common for the same actors to take part (above all certain academics and specialists) in different debates and in different scenes. As we saw, the kind of knowledge that was mobilised in these debates is wide-ranging but the use of scientific knowledge is extremely scarce.

In the case of Parliamentary debates, the MPs (who participated in the plenary meetings where this theme was addressed) only rarely made general references to studies or experts to back up their criticism or proposals, and never presented information or data derived from studies of a scientific nature or to studies produced by experts. Their interventions were mainly supported by beliefs and ideas generated by their ideological convictions or by political party strategies. The argument in favour or against the proposals of the various governments and parties was often based on foreign examples or on experiences of teachers or schools, but with no reference to empirical data or to evidence.

As far as the press is concerned, the aforementioned newspaper case highlights the existence of an “advocacy coalition” which defends positions favouring “school choice” by families, “vouchers”, the creation of “education markets”, professional management, etc, and these are expressed through editorials, opinion articles, interviews, reports and letters to the director. In these type of texts the arguments put forward tend generally to refer to a technical rationality (supposedly neutral from a political point of view) and that would separate “right” from “wrong” and “good policy” from “bad policy”. Nevertheless, in this case the use of studies and information grounded in research or academic knowledge is reduced and even more so if it is knowledge from “education sciences”.

Talk events are the public space where by its nature it is possible to find the highest number of references to studies and to research produced by academics or by experts. Testimonies from those with school management responsibilities that refer to practical knowledge derived from their personal experiences or from the knowledge produced in their post-graduate studies are also frequent at these events.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the public debate promoted by higher education institutions (per se or in articulation with professional and scientific associations) is relevant, but not many initiatives have been organised (since there aren’t also many institutions). It is in this type of event that we find the highest concentration of people and texts related to research and specialized knowledge production. However, one cannot exactly say that there is a debate (the confrontation of ideas within this academic and scientific community is reduced), but rather a combined presentation of studies, findings and different points of view.

A final word must be mentioned about the impact that the growing use of “scientific evidence” as a means of legitimisation or information for the decision maker (“knowledge or evidence based policy”) has on the increased political conditioning of the scientific production itself. This conditioning exercises its influence on the topics that are studied (quality assessment, leadership effects, effectiveness of management models, good practices, international comparisons, etc.), on the methodologies adopted (operational research, input-output analyses, extensive studies, use of indicators, etc), and on the presentation of the results (short reports, containing little “theory” and geared towards the identification and solving of problems).

However, as the ministers interviewed said, the characteristics of the academic production in education sciences, in the area of educational administration, has not shown itself to be “suitable” for problems that they deem to exist and which have to be solved. Therefore, after an initial phase, in which the drawing up of the legislation was preceded by prior studies carried out by specialists and university teachers (albeit with the collaboration of ministerial officers), one has recently witnessed the temptation to create, in the Ministry of Education, a “techno-structure” able to produce its own “state knowledge”, which is compatible with the “needs” of the Ministry of Education (see Barroso et al, 2008). This knowledge is based, above all, on “evaluation research” and on the recognition of the “good practices” (Lessard, 2008, pp. 562-563) and very often involves different disciplinary areas to education sciences (statistics, company management, social psychology, etc). In this process we are not in the presence of a mere “transfer of knowledge”, but rather the creation of applied transdisciplinary knowledge. Or, as Nassehi puts it (2008): “We are increasingly aware that we are in the presence of a transformation process, more than a transportation process”.

As such, on the one hand there is knowledge that is produced and is not used by decision makers in the Ministry of Education (either because it does not “converge” with the political orientations, or because it is excessively critical or not able to be put into practice). However, this same knowledge can be used to guide the intervention of the unions, schools and experts in the public action process. On the other hand, there is a “lack of knowledge” that is at the heart of the specific jobs commissioned by the Ministry (but also by the unions and other associations) and which is at the origin of the creation of its own centres of knowledge production within the techno-structure of the Ministry of Education.

Read document

BARROSO João (2010), Knowledge, actors and policy, Sisifo, 12, 37-48

Read document


  • NASSEHI Amin (2008), Making knowledge observable. Short considerations about the practice of “doing knowledge”, Paper for Knowandpol (not published).
  • BARROSO João & al. (2008), The social and cognitive mapping of policy: the education sector in Portugal, Lisboa: Faculdade de Psicologia e de Ciências da Educação, www.knowandpol.eu
  • LESSARD Claude (2008), Recherche et Politiques Éducatives, In van Zanten Agnés (ed), Dictionnaire de l’Éducation, Paris: PUF, 560-564.

© 2011 Knowandpol Designed and Powered by platanas