Travelling Policies and Embedded Politics – an analysis of dynamics in local education politics

  • A personal post-doctoral project funded by University of Helsinki for years 2012–2014 / PhD Janne Varjo

Throughout the 1990s the Finnish education system shifted gradually from being one of the most centralised to one of the most decentralised. Policies and practices concerning the provision of basic education are very much in the hands of municipal authorities. The governance of education forms an exceptional twofold system, where the nation-state and municipalities – all 336 of them – are the main actors in education policy and politics. The strong tradition of local autonomy, egalitarian education policy and global policy pressures are met and mixed in Finnish municipalities in various, unique and exciting ways.

These different local policy-in-action contexts create also opportunities for ambitious research designs. In spite of radical municipal autonomy, Finland has been successful in creating an education system, which is equitable in terms of small variation of student performance between schools and different parts of the country at the same time. To comprehend Finnish compulsory education and its provision at local level, Travelling Policies and Embedded Politics project analyses systematically the dynamics in politics and actors involved in education policy-making processes in Finnish municipalities.

The analysis is based on model of Analysis of Dynamics in Politics (ADP), which contains three distinctive dimensions: the political situation, the political possibilities and the Spielraum. Based on the ADP model, the empirical objectives of the project are: To produce knowledge and insight about techniques of governance at the field of basic education; To illustrate the positions, intentions and possibilities of the actors involved with strategic and operational decision-making concerning education in municipalities; To discover local Spielraum, how actors capitalize existing possibilities, how do they ‘play with contingency’; The overarching objective is to investigate the dynamics in politics, i.e. regularities and dispersions in interaction between various actors in policy formation processes at local level.

The research design is built on extensive documentary analysis, in-depth thematic interviews and participant observation. The research material consists of documents (records, strategies and evaluation reports etc.) concerning the provision of basic education at local level. The documentary analyses will be completed and contextualised by means of in-depth thematic interviews. Data will be also gathered by participant observation at municipal education committee meetings and various ad hoc occasions, seminars and discussions.

The analysis of dynamics in education politics in different local contexts and socio-cultural milieus will enable both policy makers and practitioners to assess the particular forms of policies, as well as their effects on the consensual aim of maintaining the Finnish comprehensive school as a common and shared school for all citizens. On the methodological level, the project will contribute to the theory of sociology and politics of education by exploring the model of Analysis of Dynamics in Politics at local level. Thus, the project addresses key issues in understanding the current major theoretical problems: how local education policies are linked to the educational strategies of different municipalities and various actors, and how cross-national education policies are mediated, transformed and transmitted at the local level.