Local Autonomy

and the Provision of Special Education Support in Sweden and Norway

Professor Bengt Persson, University College of Borås

In co-operation with
Senior lecturer David Lansing Cameron, University of Agder
Professor Claes Nilholm, Jönköping University Foundation

Aim and research issues

This comparative study focuses on the relationship between municipalities' governing strategies and special needs education in Norway and Sweden. The study is based on the assumption that there are lessons to be learned about the provision of education from a systematic comparison of responses to common national and international challenges (Osborn et al., 2003). In addition, Sweden and Norway share historical and political characteristics that are likely to account for similarities in educational policies in the two countries (Egelund, Haug and Persson, 2006). The theoretical frame of reference will draw on Montin's (1997) discussion of how local communities can be understood on the basis of their foundational character, leadership and administrative organization. Local autonomy is conceived as developing from a negotiation between the state and municipalities resulting in multiple identifiable local governing strategies. Thus, the goal of our study is to examine how communities employing diverse organizational and administrative solutions address the challenges of educating pupils whose needs are not being met within the context of ordinary general education practices.

Results of a questionnaire to all communities in Norway (431) and Sweden (290 communities) is reported. Response rates were 60% and 90 % for Norway and Sweden, respectively. Data derived from the Swedish part of the survey has been analyzed and presented previously (Nilholm, Persson, Hjerm & Runesson, 2007). These earlier findings pertaining to school systems' work with pupils receiving special education and a summary of the educational systems in Norway and Sweden will be briefly reviewed. However, the primary focus of this study centers on the following areas: (a) communities' management of economic resources for special education services, (b) influences on how communities organize and distribute such resources, and (c) the manner in which local communities interpret national guidelines and utilize external state support mechanisms. These factors are interpreted with respect to their relationship to strategies that municipalities put to use when local autonomy increases (Montin, 1997).

Expected Outcomes and Findings

In Sweden and Norway, segregated solutions in the form of special schools or special classes are uncommon in an international perspective. However, in recent decades school systems in both countries have faced significant challenges
as decentralization has provided local communities with more power in the education sector. Previous research indicates that there are considerable differences as to the number of pupils who receive special educational support in the two countries and, moreover, that there are dramatic differences from one municipality to the next within each country (Solli, 2005; Persson, 2003). National policies focusing on management through objectives have ensured that the state has maintained control over many important aspects of the system. At the same time, the "stakes" for countries to increase levels of educational achievement are increasing in direct proportion to increased competition via the global knowledge economy (Osborn, Broadfoot, McNess, Planel, Ravn, & Triggs, 2003). One potential result is that children whose performance does not meet the standards of national policy goals are at risk of being marginalized or removed altogether from the educational system. If a child receives special education it will in large part be dependent on the school district's capacity to provide appropriate organizational and educational adaptations within the scope of ordinary education. It is these capacities (or limitations) that are at the core of this investigation.

The project will end 2012


Cameron, L. D., Nilholm, C. & Persson, B. (2011) School district administrators’ perspectives on special education policy and practice in Norway and Sweden. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research (1-20)