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Professional responsibility and accountability?

Balancing institutional logics in the enactment of new regulations and practices against bullying and degrading treatment in Swedish schools
Department of Applied Educational Science, Umeå University
Department of Applied Educational Science, Umeå University

E-mail: sara.carlbaum@umu.se

Department of Education, Umeå University
Department of Education, Umeå University

This article reports an investigation of new forms of work against degrading treatment in Swedish compulsory school. It focuses particularly on how four schools in one municipality enact the far-reaching reporting obligation. The study is theoretically informed by institutional theory and theories on teacher professionalism, and is empirically based on interviews with teachers, head teachers, school health staff, and municipal officials, as well as analysis of policy documents and local statistics. The results show that legal regulation produces institutional complexity that creates tensions between the logic of accountability and the logic of professional responsibility, balanced by school actors in their everyday work.

Keywords: Juridification, education, institutional complexity, professional responsibility, accountability, policy enactment

Introduction – juridification and institutional complexity

Children’s rights and integrity (FN, 1989) have been on the political agenda for a long time, and in Sweden there is a far-reaching consensus when it comes to strengthening students’ rights (Englund, 2011, Quennerstedt, 2010). Complaints about degrading treatment or behaviour to the Swedish Schools Inspectorate (SSI) and the Child and School Student Representative (CSSR) for equal rights have increased steadily (Carlbaum, 2016), and many political initiatives have been taken in order to strengthen and protect pupils’ rights in school. New legislation, SFS 2010:800 (reporting obligation, liability, complaint management, etc.) and strengthened agencies (SSI and CSSR) are part of the general attempts to reform and improve the school system in this respect.

This paper is part of an ongoing project studying previously unexplored effects and consequences of new forms of work against degrading treatment with a focus on children’s socialisation and identity development through interviews with children, parents, school staff, head teachers and municipal officials. Here we focus on the practices by which the reporting obligation concerning degrading treatment is managed. The 2010 regulation explicitly specifies that the school staff is responsible for reporting any degrading treatment to the head teacher, who in turn has an obligation to report it further to the governing body. This has resulted in severe changes in teachers’ work, for example concerning the magnitude, content, style and audiences of teachers’ documentation (Hult & Lindgren, 2016), and the challenges teachers face in the enactment of the regulation (Lindgren & Hult, 2018). Research on these changing conditions in school has so far resulted in some studies in Sweden and Norway (Bergh & Arneback, 2016; Colnerud, 2014; Fransson, 2016; Lunneblad, Johansson & Odenbring, 2016; Møller & Ottesen, 2016; Runesdotter, 2016).

One way to analytically understand the increasing emphasis on children’s rights through legal regulation is termed “juridification” (Teubner 1987, Novak, 2018). According to Habermas (1987), the process of juridification involves a dilemma. On the one hand, juridification serves to rationalise, modernise and democratise the welfare state and secure justice and equal treatment through an expansion of legal structures and practices whereby conflicts are increasingly being solved by or with reference to the law (c.f. Habermas, 1987; Loick, 2014; Blichner & Molander, 2008). On the other hand, a crucial feature of juridification is the colonisation of the lifeworld by the instrumental rationality of bureaucracies (Habermas, 1987). This means that juridical ideas and practices “penetrate ever more deeply into the symbolic reproduction of communities” and the cooperative processes of interpretation, tradition, norms and values (Habermas in Gibson, 2013, p. 789).

Echoing this mode of understanding, but from a pedagogical horizon, Englund and Solbrekke (2015) have identified a conflict between the logic of professional responsibility and the logic of accountability. The former logic is based on a professional mandate where school actors have discretion and are trusted to make situated judgements concerning how to encounter dilemmas in their everyday work. The latter logic, on the other hand, is built on radically different principles, in which external control and standardised practices serve to govern the work of professionals (Englund & Solbrekke, 2015). As conflicts and tensions between these “contradictory logics of professional work” evolve, the logic of accountability “threatens” or even “triumphs” over the logic of professionalism (Englund & Solbrekke, 2015, p. 168 and 175; Solbrekke & Englund, 2011, p. 847).

We argue that the basic framework on the conflicting logics in teacher professionalism is informative in relation to the changes in schools’ work against bullying and degrading treatment, and perhaps in relation to the reporting obligation practices in particular. However, we also argue that it is not sufficiently helpful when it comes to questions about how the logics are actually played out in concrete practices, how they are kept apart, and how they coexist and even complement each other (Smets, Jarzabkowski & Burke, 2014).

In order to explore institutional complexity in the enactment of policies to counteract bullying and degrading treatment in school, we therefore also draw on institutional theory (Greenwood, Raynard, Kodeih, Miclotta & Lounsbury, 2014) and the following theoretical tools: “filters”, “segmenting”, “bridging” and “demarcating” (Smets et al., 2014). The notion of organisational filters draws attention to the fact that “pressures from institutional complexity do not affect all organisations equally” (Greenwood et al., 2011, p. 339). Filters help to capture how policies and regulations pass through governing bodies in different ways, and how governing bodies filter such regulations differently, creating divergent dynamics or levels of tensions between the logics in schools (c.f. Greenwood et al., 2011). Segmenting, bridging and demarcating describe interrelated mechanisms that allow school actors to balance the competing logics by keeping the logics apart and combining them while simultaneously self-monitoring activities to make sure that neither logic is marginalised or that they are mixed in ways that jeopardise legitimacy (c.f. Smets et al., 2014).

We used two research questions responding to a) the level of the governing body and b) the school level.

  1. How is institutional complexity in individual schools filtered by attributes of the governing body?

  2. How do school actors balance the coexisting logics of professional responsibility and accountability in their everyday work?

By studying one municipality and a sample of schools, we provide an example of how policy is enacted on a local level. We do this to facilitate a discussion on policies, and schools’ work against degrading treatment in a Nordic context with different historical, contemporary and contingent welfare states where at least Sweden and Norway are increasingly characterised by individualism, rights-based approaches, and legalism (Novak, 2018; Ottesen & Møller, 2016).

In the following we present the national context for policy on degrading treatment in order to facilitate an understanding of increasing institutional complexity in school. Next, the theoretical resources, data and methodology are presented. We then report our results starting with the first research question (a) concerning the governing body and ending with the second research question (b) about the school level. Finally, we engage in a discussion about regulation of schools’ work against bullying and degrading treatment.

Governing bodies’ and schools’ responsibility to counteract bullying and degrading treatment – the external context

In the early 2000s, voices were raised about improving students’ rights in education, especially when it came to issues of discrimination and bullying. A law that would protect students and children was put into place to ensure that students were taken seriously and that discrimination and bullying were recognised as such (Prop 2005/06:38). In 2006, the Child and Student Protection Act introduced a strict ban on discrimination, harassment and other degrading treatment, including bullying, which comprised an obligation to counteract and prevent such behaviour, as well as to investigate and take necessary actions to prevent further abuse (Prop. 2005/06:38; SOU 2004:50). If a governing body of a school (i.e. a municipality or the operator of an independent school) does not fulfil these duties, it may be sued for damages. A student representative for equal rights, the Child and School Student Representative (CSSR), was put in place to accept complaints (Prop. 2005/06:38). The CSSR decides on damage payments in cases of serious degrading treatment, including cases of long-term abuse that the governing body was aware of but did not take sufficient measures to counteract. The CSSR determines the amounts of damages paid for such incidents; thus disagreements about the decisions can lead to settlements or litigation in court, in which the CSSR pleads the student’s case. With the introduction of a new Education Act implemented in 2011 (SFS 2010:800), these regulations regarding degrading treatment were incorporated in the Education Act, while regulations regarding discrimination and harassment were merged with the Discrimination Act (Prop. 2007/08:95; SFS 2008:567). Today, the regulations on discrimination and harassment have been moved again, to be included in the Education Act.

Since 2008, the CSSR has been affiliated with the SSI, the supervisory agency established to inspect and ensure that schools abide by current laws and regulations (Carlbaum, 2016). The SSI as a government agency emphasises individual rights, the rule of law, education quality and equity, through a juridified inspection regime (Hult & Segerholm, 2016). While the SSI receives and handles complaints on any school-related shortcomings regulated under the Education Act, the Education Ordinance and the national curriculum, such as special support measures and education rights, the CSSR handles and addresses cases of degrading treatment. The SSI can issue different sanctions such as damages to students and fines for governing bodies if they do not abide by the rules and regulations regarding discrimination, harassment and degrading treatment. In addition to the regulations in the previous Child and Student Protection Act, the Swedish Education Act has expanded the regulations on degrading treatment. For one, governing bodies are responsible for maintaining known routines and procedures for receiving and investigating complaints. This right to complain to providers applies to all facets of a student’s education and schooling situation, including the quality of teaching. But the regulation that we are especially interested in, which has changed governing bodies’ practices as well as school staff practices, is the regulation that explicitly specifies that the staff is responsible for reporting any degrading treatment to the head teacher, who in turn has an obligation to report it further to the governing body (SFS 2010:800, §10, chapter 6). This regulation is added to the obligation to quickly investigate and take necessary measures to counteract such treatment (Prop. 2009/10:165; SFS 2010:800). It is this regulation that has increased the share of decisions with critique and sanctions from the SSI and CSSR when it comes to filed complaints on degrading treatment (Carlbaum, 2016).

Overall, these changes have resulted in new documentation practices in schools and governing bodies in order to meet accountability demands and extensive discussions on what to report, when to report, how to report, and about who determines whether degrading treatments have taken place (Hult & Lindgren, 2016).

Conflicting logics and how to explore them – theoretical tools

Theoretically, we draw on theories that allow us to explore the local enactment of education policy and legal regulation. Conceptually, enactment describes a move away from conventional ideas of implementation and “[brings] together contextual, historic and psychosocial dynamics into a relation with texts and imperatives to produce action and activities that are policy” (Ball, Maguire & Braun, 2012, p. 71).

As we argued above, schools’ work against bullying and degrading treatment involves two conflicting logics: the logic of professional responsibility and the logic of accountability (Englund & Solbrekke, 2015). Englund and Solbrekke (2015) introduce these logics in a discussion about what it means to be a professional teacher and to act professionally in times of marketisation, New Public Management and juridification. The logics highlight crucial differences with implications for the work against bullying and degrading treatment as questions of professional discretion. For example, do teachers have the freedom and autonomy – and are they entrusted – to make judgements about how to respond to such problems according to their professional knowledge,1 or are they governed by external control based on a juridical rationality? Do they develop their own professional language and language use, or are they forced into excessive defensive documentation? Are they allowed – and given time and resources – to be proactive, or pressed to take a more reactive approach in their work? And are teachers allowed to make situated judgements, or is their work subjected to standardisation by external rules?

The final question is of absolute importance since it draws attention to differences concerning “the epistemic dimension of discretion” (Molander, 2016) within the two logics. Professional responsibility is based on the principle of individualisation, that is, the idea that since children, situations, schools, parents, and so on are different, they must be treated differently. The teacher must use all the accumulated knowledge about specific children, with their specific needs, in a specific situation, in order to make a judgement about the best possible intervention (c.f. Molander, 2016). The logic of accountability, on the other hand, is based on the demand for comparative consistency following from the principle of equity. Formal justice, according to this legal logic, is achieved when all cases are treated equally across time and space. Each of these normative contexts of discretion are valid in its own right, and it has always been difficult to satisfy their respective requirements concerning discretionary reasoning as a teacher or as a lawyer. The challenge for contemporary teachers in times of juridification is how to manage them both simultaneously.

For our purposes, the ideas of policy enactment and the two conflicting logics do not provide sufficient analytical precision for the empirical exploration of difficult questions of this kind. We therefore turn to organisational institutionalism, which offers an umbrella perspective for understanding organisational processes, actions, behaviour, stability and resistance, in relation to rules and norms as both a product of and ongoing production of shared systems of meaning concerning complex means and ends (e.g., Scott, 1995). Notions of institutional complexity and institutional logics help us to explore the professional lives of school actors at different levels and how their actions and beliefs are framed by conflicts in times of juridification. In line with studies on policy enactment (Ball, Maguire & Braun, 2012), the starting point here is that institutional pressures in the form of new policies and legal regulation “do not just ‘enter’ an organisation – they are interpreted, given meaning and ‘represented’ by occupants of structural positions” (Greenwood & Hinings, 1996 quoted in Greenwood et al., 2011, p. 342).

Responses to complexity might play out differently, and in order to understand variation, ideas on filters, segmenting, bridging and demarcating are helpful (Greenwood et al., 2011; Smets et al., 2014). We use the notion of filters as a concept for researching how the governing body enacts policies through particular forms of organisation, information, control and notification systems. Filters work in a situated and dynamic way, and describe how attributes of organisations, such as their position, structure, ownership and governance, and identity, frame how complexity is experienced, and how organisations perceive and construct responses to complexity (Greenwood et al., 2011).

Segmenting, bridging and demarcating are concepts used to look into how school actors such as teachers and head teachers balance coexisting logics in everyday work. Segmenting is “practices that use given organisational structures to allow individuals to enact coexisting logics separately, where and when appropriate, to protect them from scrutiny by, and loss of legitimacy with, referent audiences of competing logics” (Smets et al., 2014, p. 33). It is a concept that draws attention to how “individuals skilfully and fluidly assign different parts of their own work to different situations” (Smets et al., 2014, p. 34). Bridging is defined by Smets et al. (2014, p. 35) as the “situated and judicious combination of practices governed by competing logics in order to reap their complementarities”. In this process, “individuals use their personal judgment to connect segmented practices and dynamically balance competing logics according to their fluctuating salience in different situations” (Smets et al., 2014, p. 35). Demarcating is a concept that captures how individuals in organisations manage to strike a relative balance between competing logics. This balance is produced by “self-monitoring and organisational peer-monitoring structures to scrutinise their bridging practices and protect themselves against excessively marginalising one logic and jeopardising their legitimacy” (Smets et al., 2014, p. 36). It alerts actors if bridging is too excessive and defines the room for action where they can use their “judgment to balance logics according to fluctuating situational demands” (Smets et al., 2014, p. 36). We draw selectively on these theoretical resources, in order to understand enactment within a small selection of schools in one municipality that shares many characteristics in terms of, for example, structure, ownership and governance.


The study was exploratory, mainly in the sense that we wanted to study the enactment of the policy on degrading treatment laid down in the Education Act of 2010, which is something that has not yet received much study. A starting point was that the complexity of schooling and educational practice increased with the new demands put on teachers, head teachers and governing bodies to report degrading treatment and bullying and to work diligently to counteract such behaviour. We also wanted to explore the use of theories of institutional theory, particularly institutional logics and complexity and the concepts used by Greenwood et al. (2011) and Smets et al. (2014), on our interview data. Smets et al. (2014) have conscientiously tried to bridge a theoretical view of institutional logics as a dichotomy, in which logics are understood as competing or conflicting. Contrary to such an understanding, they aspired to understand everyday practice as often being about activities trying to balance different logics that are not at odds with each other. They base their arguments on empirical data generated in an ethnographical study, relying heavily on observations. Their study concerned the practice of underwriters at Lloyds, an everyday practice that has been characterised by two different logics for a long time (market logic and community logic). In our study, the Education Act from 2010 introduced new juridical requirements stressing the logic of accountability. Also, our data were generated mainly through interviews and do not contain first-hand information about actual everyday practices. We wanted to know if it is more meaningful to apply these theories and concepts in other studies than ethnographical ones. Hence, our two research questions emanate from this ambition.

In our exploration of the enactment of the policy on degrading treatment, we studied one municipality and a selection of schools in that municipality. The municipality is also the governing body of the selected schools. The choice of municipality was made using the following criteria: a larger city; the presence of independent schools; and a fair amount of complaints filed to the SSI and CSSR. Following Ball, Maguire and Brown (2012) and their discussion of the importance of context, we based our choice on arguments that a larger city provides many different schools with different contexts: material in terms of resources; situational contexts in terms of student attainment; and professional contexts in terms of working differently against degrading treatment. The presence of independent schools increases competition, and filed complaints can affect a school’s reputation. A fair amount of complaints filed to the SSI and CSSR further provide a municipality with experience of complaints and damages paid out. The schools were selected based on the idea of maximal variation and that they are schools for compulsory education. Maximal variation concerned: schools with few or many reports on degrading treatment; schools that had students in different grades; and schools in more or less socioeconomic homogenous areas.

We used legal documents and statues, official government reports, documents from the SSI and CSSR, and information on websites, to describe the policy background and national context. To describe the municipality’s and schools’ work with degrading treatment, we mainly used: interviews with seven public officials (the school manager, the developer of matters concerning equal treatment, and five directors); interviews with five head teachers; eighteen teachers teaching in grades 5 and 8; and eight school health staff at four schools.

Figure 1. Interviews in March municipality

To understand the procedure for reporting degrading treatment and bullying, we also used internal documents on complaint management and equal treatment plans, website information, and statistics on staff reports of degrading treatment.

All interviews were recorded electronically and transcribed in full. We observed research ethics concerning informed consent, and confidentiality was upheld through renaming the municipality and the schools and by only reporting positions of the informants. This is in line with the Swedish Research Council’s advice (Vetenskapsrådet, 2017).

To answer our research questions, we processed the interviews by reading them thoroughly, searching for instances and interview statements in which we detected some expressions of tensions between the two logics and ways to handle the tensions. This was done individually, and we then discussed whether or not these statements were expressions of the complexity and tensions related to these logics. After that, we tried the different concepts from institutional theory and found that filter (Greenwood et al., 2011) was the most useful for answering the first question. The concepts segmenting, bridging and demarcating were better fit for the school actor level, in that they are tied to individuals’ everyday practices. Turning to the incidents and statements we had identified, we classified them using the theoretical concepts. We also selected some examples, to illustrate how they help illuminate the enactment of the policy on degrading treatment, through different ways of handling and balancing the complexity in everyday educational practice that the new demands now put on governing bodies, head teachers and teachers.

We now present the results from the study of the enactment of the policy in one municipality, March municipality, and the selected schools.


In the following, we first present a short background of the incident report system at the municipal level, followed by our analysis of how actors at the municipal level act as filters to reduce institutional complexity at individual schools. Our informants are the school directors coordinating school units in five municipal areas, a school manager, and a developer of matters concerning equal treatment. In the second section, we turn to the school level and utilise the concepts segmenting, bridging and demarcating (Smets et al., 2014) as tools to analyse how head teachers and teachers are trying to balance the coexisting logics of professional responsibility and accountability in everyday school work.

The level of the governing body – March municipality

In March municipality, the directors meet regularly with head teachers to discuss matters at the schools, and matters concerning the incident report system. The manager has been involved in the process of implementing the new regulation at the level of the governing body as well as at the head teacher level in schools. The developer receives, manages and compiles all reports on degrading treatment from schools at the municipal level and gives feedback to head teachers and to the municipal administration.

According to our informants, March municipality was already working sufficiently towards counteracting bullying and degrading treatment before the implementation of the Education Act and its paragraph 10 in chapter 6. Competence among the staff in the organisation, together with important supporting functions such as the developer, contributed to this. The new regulation, with demands for reports on degrading treatment from schools to the governing body, was a substantial change. Overall, the work has been formed by the juridical administration, that is, in terms of what must be “assured” (School Manager). Questions about what kinds of material must be collected became increasingly important and emergent as well as detailed questions about the reporting system and the function and management of it. Initially, the developer constructed a documentation system consisting of two documents in which the head teachers had to report degrading treatment to the register at the student health care in the municipality. The received reports were given a registration number, and sent back to the head teachers so they could investigate and follow them up. The developer would then look over the reports and provide support to head teachers to conduct investigations and take the necessary measures.

Since September 2016, a new web-based report system has been put into place constructed by the developer, a group of head teachers, the school manager, the unit chief for the student health care staff and the two municipality lawyers. It is meant to be used as basic data and evidence for “when/if there is a complaint filed to the SSI” and to be used to answer most of the questions posed by the SSI when a school is under investigation (Developer, Internal Documents). In the new report system, teachers or school staff members fill out the report, name the responsible head teacher and then forward it. The responsible head teacher receives the filled-out report, signs it and forwards it once again. The developer then receives, manages and compiles all reports on degrading treatment from schools at the municipal level, and provides feedback to head teachers (if needed) and school directors, as well as to the municipal administration.

The actual web-based form documents, among other things: the student’s gender, name, school, class and personal identification number; whether degrading treatment has happened before and, if so, how frequently; how the incident has been investigated; more detailed information concerning how the student has been abused and the concerned parties’ descriptions of the incident. School staff members are also asked whether they make the assessment that degrading treatment, discrimination or harassment has taken place. In addition, the school staff is asked to fill in what measures have been taken, when, and with what purpose, when the case and measures taken will be followed up, who will follow them up, whether the case is thought of as handled and closed, and if so, on what date, what measures were taken, and whether these led to the goals being reached. The head teacher then marks that she or he has been made aware of the case, on what date, and if he or she would like contact and support from the equality developer.

In addition to the web-based form, the governing body has support material for school staff to use when managing issues of degrading treatment. This material consists of a brief guide on how to perform investigations, including mandatory measures, templates for discussions with students who are involved in incidents, detailed rules regarding when and how parents should be contacted, and a list of proposals for further actions.


Over time, March municipality has provided training and briefings to both school directors, head teachers and teachers, and thus aims to ensure that all schools are working in the same way. Above all, the new regulation about degrading treatment caused uncertainty regarding which cases were supposed to be reported. The initial phase is an example of how the central municipal management worked as a filter and made an interpretation of the regulation that was passed on to schools and materialised in particular local enactments.

At the beginning, the legislator/legislature did not offer a clear picture of this, and the signal from the governing body was that the schools themselves should assess the gravity of the incident – this was later to be corrected, when it was made clear, that everything had to be reported without making a prior judgement.

(School Manager)

However, after complaints to the SSI from parents, and the decision by the SSI that March municipality (the governing body) had to pay damages to a student, the governing body started explicating to school leaders how the paragraph should be understood and executed. The instruction to school personnel was revised to reporting every incident, and not valuing the seriousness of a degrading treatment. All incidents where a student perceived him or herself as degraded or abused should be reported to the governing body at once. Despite this instruction, the school manager explained that there are nevertheless great differences between schools in the number of incidents reported – differences that not necessarily correspond to actual conditions in schools when it comes to degrading treatment problems. Statistics from the municipality office confirm this picture, and indicate a great difference between schools, ranging from no reports at all during a school year to more than 100 for a single school (see Table 1). One of the municipal officials interviewed in this study summarised the situation: “these kinds of incidents shall be reported, but the question is, as you are saying, ‘is this happening?’ Well, I think there is some kind of filter” (Director 3).

Table 1.

Number of incidents reported 2015/16 at the schools in March municipality taking part in the study

SchoolsNumber of incidents
Cloudberry schooln=137
Sloe schooln=105
Cotoneaster schooln=2
Gojiberry schooln=1

We argue that the directors can be understood as filters, through the different ways that they engage with head teachers and schools in their respective areas in these matters. Thus, they have a potential role in the production of the dramatic differences between schools when it comes to the number of reports.

Gojiberry School and Cotoneaster School, two schools that report very few cases of degrading treatment, are situated in two different areas, governed by directors with similar backgrounds (Directors 1 and 3). Both are former teachers with extensive school experience from work as teachers and head teachers going back to the 1970s or early 1980s. They draw on this experience in their work as directors and do not supervise head teachers or schools work with reporting incidents of degrading treatment closely. Sloe School and Cloudberry School both belong to the group of schools that are most diligent when it comes to reporting degrading treatment. These schools are situated in two separate areas coordinated by directors who have never worked as teachers (Directors 4 and 5) but who started working in the school system as head teachers in the 2000s. They are both conversant about the current policy and regulation in this area and appear to work more closely on a daily basis with their head teachers when it comes to supervising and adjusting flows of reports. Tentatively, we argue that the former group leans towards the logic of professional responsibility, while the latter more clearly embodies elements from the logic of accountability.

The interpretation of the Education Act is an important element here, that is, that the Education Act firmly states the obligation to report degrading treatment, but is far less informative concerning the question about what kind of conduct should be reported. Among directors with extensive school backgrounds, interpretations tend to gravitate to a more laid back attitude or even misinterpretations of the regulation, which possibly leads to fewer reports. As noted by Director 2, who also has a background as a teacher: “the most important thing is that adults react and that the children feel that the adults care and that they can turn to them” (Director 2). As noted by one of the directors from the other category of directors, it is rather the formal investigation that ought to determine if, or not, the behaviour has been degrading in a juridical sense, even if the subjective experience must always be taken seriously as a starting point for this investigation (Director 4).

As filters, these two types of directors are different, and produce different forms of “distance” to regulation. In our data, the directors with long pedagogic experience allow a greater space for manoeuvre compared with the directors with a short school experience, who police and nudge head teachers in their areas (c.f. Greenwood et al., 2011, p. 339). We argue that directors as filters thus contribute to differences in terms of “field position” and “structure” (c.f. Greenwood et al., 2011, p. 339–344). Head teachers and schools directed by the former group of directors are allowed to work on “the periphery” where they can deviate from the policy about reporting all incidents, or use their discretion and professional responsibility in a flexible way, since they are relatively unaware of “expectations” and not caught up in “institutional relationships” (Greenwood et al., 2011, p. 339). Directors are thus crucial “carriers” of policy (Zilber, 2002 quoted in Greenwood et al., 2011, p. 342).

In the next part, we will look closer into how head teachers and school staff balance the coexisting logics of professional responsibility and accountability.

School level

The Education Act introduced in 2010 placed new demands on teachers, school leaderships and governing bodies, stressing the logic of accountability (Englund & Solbrekke, 2015). In the everyday practice of head teachers and school staff, the expansion of this logic formed a new complexity, putting a potential strain on the logic of professional responsibility. This is apparent in the tensions experienced by the interviewed school actors in situations concerning degrading treatment and the subsequent reporting requirements of such incidents. The tensions, or rather the different demands that the two logics put on school staff, are handled in different ways. Here we exemplify how the school staff balances these coexisting logics in different ways.


As explained earlier, segmenting is used to handle demands from different logics by separating them, that is, keeping practices that belong to the different logics apart in time and space (Smets et al., 2014, p. 19–20 and 33–34). This is necessary since the two logics are based on different principles that are impossible to execute at the same time, professional responsibility on the principle of individualisation and accountability that demands equal treatment (Molander, 2016). One example given in the interviews was when teachers use different documentation practices for different purposes and audiences. The incident reporting practice and formal investigations in schools are mainly documentation for the purpose of upholding the juridical requirements, and must contain specific evidential information in case a complaint is filed by a parent or student and the SSI initiate an investigation. In order to work on problems such as degrading treatment, teachers use professional knowledge that manifests itself in activities that do not have any place or function within such documents. Teachers’ practice to document, for example, the development of an individual student’s self-esteem, is voluntary, and based on pedagogical and professional interest. The purpose here is to support teachers’ instruction and social interaction with and between individual students.

It may be about self-esteem and all kinds of things, and then, I don’t document it in an incident report. Then, I document so that I know that I have it all documented in a notebook or something like that. So, the incident reporting, it is just about this instance, it is not a continuing… /---/ The ones you document yourself are much more personal. That is, more detailed, and you may bring in peoples’ feelings. An incident report says nothing.

(Cotoneaster school, teacher, grade 5)

Interestingly, this is a form of segmenting that on the outset is imposed by the legislator and then used by teachers. Teachers’ detailed notes covering personal and emotional aspects are considered irrelevant or even problematic within a juridical framework based on ideals in terms of objectivity, impartiality and simplicity. Teachers who are socialised in the juridified school context may aptly keep different forms of documentation separated. They may keep the juridical documentation to a minimum: short, defensive and safe, in order to save time for efforts that are closer to their professional beliefs. Another type of segmenting we identified was when one teacher described how she knows that the different logics require different practices, by switching from the practice of dealing with incidents of degrading treatment as a pedagogical issue directly in the situation with students, to the practice of dealing with the documentation of the incident, which is based on the logic of accountability. When the teacher noticed an incident of degrading treatment, she intervened directly in the situation and place where the incident occurred. The documentation (reporting the incident to the head teacher) must be carried out later, in an office room, organised by the web-based report system. She explained:

Well, previously, I went there and sorted it out [an incident of degrading behaviour among students, our clarification]. And now I do it most often, and sometimes I don’t write the reports because I don’t have time. /---/ But, I do understand the need to be able to go back to some form of documentation, but I think it may be an obstacle.

(Goji school, grade 8)

Here, segmenting evolves as a consequence of fundamental characteristics of the pedagogical phenomena: incidents occur in time and space. An incident may often call for immediate pedagogical action; an opportunity for teachers to interfere and instruct and a chance for students to learn. Juridical (and other forms of) documentation must be dealt with later in a workroom when time is available and resources (computer, templates, information about the students, etc.) are at hand.


To balance the demands that different logics put on teachers, practices based on one logic can be used in situations mainly dominated by another logic. Smets et al. (2015, p. 20 and 35–36) visualise this balancing of logics as bringing something from one side of a bridge and putting it to use on the other side. The practice of writing incident reports, which is based on the logic of accountability, can be used to notice degrading treatment and thus enrich pedagogical and professional responsibility. One example of bridging may be when the teachers say that the necessity to write incident reports about issues they had earlier handled in a pedagogical way, but had not documented accurately, meant that they now “see” different things and also detect recurring incidents of degrading treatment. This is exemplified in this quotation:

But we also make visible if there is someone, it may be small things, but suddenly we have ten reports concerning one person, and it makes it visible: “Hmmm, there may be a lot around one particular student.” And particularly if there is one teacher on one occasion, and me on another occasion. (…) Then, the same person may be involved in a lot of things and if we don’t write [the incident reports, we don’t know. (…) So, finally, taken together, there can be very many [incidents]. So there are advantages, but [only if ] used with care.

(Sloan school, teacher grade 5)

Another example of bridging involves the use of professional experiences from a long pedagogical career within the logic of accountability. An experienced pedagogue at Cloudberry School described a very conscious strategy of balancing the logic of accountability and the logic of professional responsibility by means of subtle forms of intuition. He was telling us about how they were not always taking care of incidents “by the book” but were dealing with them as they always have done. This is risky because, if the incident escalates and a student’s parents file a complaint to the SSI, the school might not have the necessary documentation to prove they have dealt with the incident. He underlined the importance of building good relations with parents in order to maintain this balancing act.

Some things you have to look after, that you have good relations with parents, that you take care of those things. That is you call, you don’t e-mail! You call and you say, “Now I have talked to your son today, and I am going to do this and that.” And you check of course while you are talking, you can listen and interpret the level, sort of where we are. And then your experience clicks in and tells you “Yes, this is cool. I can handle this easy and quiet”, or ”Here it will be more oh, here I really have to [be careful].”

(Cloudberry school, teacher grade 8)

In our interpretation, this pedagogue is using his professional experience to decide whether it is necessary to apply the logic of accountability and write an incident report, or if it may be enough to handle it by the the logic of professional responsibility. Situated background knowledge about the student and the parents – who they are and how they act in relation to the school, together with the ability to listen and interpret the level of indignation in speech and tone of voice, provides information in order to judge whether such informal briefing and risk management by phone is enough, or whether a formal investigation must be carried out. This example illustrates the close relationship between bridging and demarcating. It is a conscious strategy, to hinder excessive and futile use of the logic of accountability, that is, to determine whether “this is cool”. Demarcating will be further explicated in the next section.


In the demarcating process, individuals strive for a balance through self-monitoring and monitoring from others. This is done to prevent marginalising one logic and thereby putting the legitimacy of its representatives at stake. One example of demarcating is the process in which a head teacher seeks to establish a balance between incident reporting at the particular school and the expected number of reports. Flows of reports within in a governing body may be accumulated into statistics that render possible comparisons, which in turn produce expectations in terms of normal distributions. In this process, directors meet with head teachers to calibrate the flows of reports, since the governing body is ultimately responsible for making sure that all schools adhere to the regulation. Director 5 restates one head teacher’s worries about not producing enough incident reports:

We had a follow-up in February where one head teacher gives me a signal: “Our numbers are too low. This is not… we must have missed something” /---/ “We ought to have many more, this is not okay, this is not good.”

(Director 5)

Thus, demarcating reveals how juridification turns conventional logic upside down. Low numbers of reports are not a sign of a well-functioning and safe school environment – it is a warning signal that measures to document and report are not delivering numbers at expected levels: it “is not good”. The actual conditions at the particular school in terms of problems related to degrading treatment are secondary; the main point is that staff start reporting.

Another contrary example was when the demands of the reporting incidents of degrading treatment became too dominant, demanded too much from teachers and head teachers, and interfered with their sense of professional responsibility. In some schools, the legal requirement of documenting incidents of degrading treatment resulted in reporting “en masse”, and the head teachers eventually intervened to reduce the number of reports. Demarcating was then used to balance the different logics in their everyday practices. One teacher said:

When this latest [legal requirement, our classification] came, then a terrible load of incident reports were written, because our head teacher declared that they had to be written. Then they got… they were drowning [in reports], so pretty quickly they had to go out and say “Oh no, no, no, you can’t write about this.”

(Sloan school, teacher grade 5)

Head teachers who work with March municipality’s web-based system for the incident reports find different ways to reduce the teachers’ time spent on writing reports. One head teacher seeks to delay teachers’ documentation work through an arrangement by which reports do not have to be filled in at once, since that would take too much time away from pedagogic work. When a teacher fills out a report, the head teacher prints it and puts it in a binder under green tape for solved or a red tape for ongoing. However, the head teacher does not sign and send in the report until the case is followed up, “solved” and put under the green tape, which could take a month. The reason for this is that once the report is signed, it is sent to the governing body and locked for any other entry, and it would then not be possible to add information on how the case was followed up and what actions were taken. But if it is a very severe case that might lead to something more, it is signed at once. The equal treatment group has the responsibility to check the binder every week to ensure nothing is missed. Most often mentors handle cases of degrading treatment through talks and communication, but in more serious cases, other teachers from the equal treatment group or student health care staff are brought in to signal the severity of the case at hand. Both teachers and the head teacher describe marginalisation of the logic of accountability, and resistance towards the external rules of reporting any degrading treatment to the governing body. As one teacher puts it:

Otherwise we will document ourselves to death, I think. So, we make a judgement, sure we can sit and say “It is your own feeling” because we know that it’s the answer we have to give as pedagogues, but it is still, we don’t document every case when students feel degraded. Then we wouldn’t do anything else. So we also make a judgement.

(Cotoneaster school, teacher year 5)

Documentation that becomes too excessive is hence counterbalanced with judgement-making based on more tacit forms of knowledge. Eventually, this also shows that demarcating is a difficult process and that – if actors drift too far from official regulative standards in attempts to demarcate – such behaviour reaffirms the importance of segmenting in order to maintain more bureaucratic ideals within the logic of accountability.


In this article we have explored the local enactment of education policy in one municipality and a selection of schools, and the legal regulation introduced in the Education Act 2010, specifying that all school staff and head teachers have an obligation to report degrading treatment to the governing body. We argue that this regulation, among others, brings in a new institutional complexity that creates tensions between the logic of accountability and the logic of professional responsibility. Although these logics tend to be understood as conflicting, we have shown how the logics can be locally enacted, that is, how they are kept apart, coexist and even complement each other. By the use of institutionalist concepts (Greenwood et al., 2011), institutional complexity can be understood as being filtered by the governing body’s information and constructed report forms of what must be reported. The attempt to assure that the right information is gathered in a standardised way, and that investigations are conducted according to a set standard is however also filtered by the field position of the school directors and their different pedagogic experiences. They tend to produce different forms of “distance” to the regulation, and provide more or less room for head teacher and teacher discretion. School directors can be viewed as crucial carriers of policy that produces dramatic differences between schools, when it comes to how many reports are being filed each year from different schools.

We find that by drawing on institutional theory, we can further our understanding of how school actors balance the coexisting logics of accountability and professional responsibility in their everyday work. For one, school actors tend to segment the different logics, to keep the practice of juridical reporting for the reports’ sake in one place and at one time, apart from the professional pedagogic judgment that is trying to solve the situation at hand. While segmenting the different logics represents a form of handling competing and conflicting logics, bridging rather provides us with an understanding of how the two logics can feed into each other, as with the example where following the logic of accountability by writing reports can make visible recurring incidents of degrading treatment. Demarcating is another way that we detected as a form of balancing the two logics, where school actors self- or peer-monitor, and make sure one logic is not marginalised, for example, by calibrating flows of reports and making sure that potential “risky” incidents are well documented. Defensive documentation for accountability purposes tends to be balanced by the logic of professional responsibility in segmenting, bridging and demarcating, when making judgments about what and when to report.

We argue that the theoretical contribution of combining the identified logics of accountability and professional responsibility (Englund & Solbrekke, 2015) with institutional concepts (Greenwood et al., 2011; Smets et al., 2014), in order to understand the local enactment of new policies on schools’ work against bullying and degrading treatment, has made visible, and made us attentive to, the sometimes complementary ways in which head teachers and school staff handle and balance the logic of accountability and of professional responsibility.

Englund and Solbrekke (2015) also frame their discussion in relation to the concepts of professionalism and professionalisation, which are linked to the two logics. Professionalism is linked to professional responsibility and based on the internal and broad pedagogical development of teaching as a practice, whereas professionalisation refers to an external perspective where autonomy, authority, status and legitimacy are central. In this case, the legal paragraph strengthening the logic of accountability in the work against bullying can be seen as a form of professionalisation brought in not only by the professionals themselves but also by state actors. This however does not mean that teachers do not see and practice the juridified logic of accountability as a way of understanding and performing their profession and thereby contributing to professionalisation. The practice of “writing reports”, documenting and following rules and regulations as a new ideal in what it means to be a professional teacher, also reflects changes in what is meant by a good school. Documenting, writing reports and displaying just enough reports on degrading treatment show that your school is taking seriously its legal responsibility for handling, investigating and preventing bullying and degrading treatment, thereby upholding legitimacy and constructing the image of a good school.

By the theoretical combination drawing on Molander (2016) to develop Englund and Solbrekkes’ (2015) different logics, and the dimension of discretion they provide, we can advance our understanding of why segmenting and bridging practices take place. As the two logics are based on different principles (i.e. professional responsibility is based on the principle of individualisation, while the logic of accountability, is based on the demand for comparative consistency following from the principle of equity), this means that the two dimensions are most easily handled by being kept apart in both time and space. Practices of bridging provide another example when schools and individuals realise that they cannot report everything that happens in schools which might be considered degrading treatment, but still need to uphold legitimacy by treating each case equally and writing reports along the logic of accountability. Individuals can then find a solution by using their professional discretion in each case when deciding on whether to write a report, depending on who is involved, what has happened before, who the parents are, and if this will be sorted out, or if it risks escalating to a filed complaint. The principle of individualisation inherent in the professional responsibility is challenging, in that it is perfectionist, meaning that there is no outer limit on what can or should be done to prevent or stop bullying and degrading treatment – you can always do more (Molander, 2016). While this has always been a predicament of teachers, the difference today is that their work, their time and their resources are further oriented towards the need for assurances and defensive documentation in ways that potentially contribute to frustration, inner conflicts and feelings of inauthenticity, or what Stephen J. Ball has termed “the terrors of performativity” (Ball, 2003).


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1We use the concept of professional knowledge to denote the mixture of research knowledge (both theory and evidence), collective and individual experience, and common sense, that teachers traditionally use in their work.

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