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Changed Value System in the Wake of School Reforms


The so-called first teacher reform from 2013 can be considered an indirect response to the debate concerning the declining performance of Swedish schools. According to a study from the University of Gothenburg, many Swedish teachers feel that the reform has made teacher relations less egalitarian and more hierarchical. Also due to the reform, the so-called lead teachers, who had their position legitimised by their colleagues, have been replaced with first teachers, who in contrast are mainly considered an extension of the school management.

In the study, Peter Erlandson and Mikael R Karlsson explore how teachers at a Swedish upper-secondary school are receiving, interpreting and handling the first teacher reform, one of the most discussed Swedish school reforms in recent decades. The new career advancement position was introduced to make the teaching profession more attractive. When the reform has been fully implemented, the Swedish school system will comprise an estimated 17 000 first teachers, who on average are paid SEK 5 000 more per month than regular teachers.

An Attempt to Establish a Hierarchy

The researchers participated, observed and interviewed teachers and headteachers in meetings at which the introduction of reforms and other change processes at the school since 2012 was discussed. The study is based on 450 hours of field studies at the selected school.
‘The first teacher reform triggered strong emotions when introduced at the school. It was considered unfair. The teachers saw it as an attempt to differentiate between them, to create a hierarchy. They also thought that the reform threatened central principles such as equal treatment and everybody’s equal value, and that it encouraged eye-service’, says Karlsson.

The first teacher reform was the last of a long series of changes in the Swedish school system both nationally and locally, which added even more fuel to the teachers’ negative attitudes. The reform was considered to be part of a fundamental overhaul of the Swedish school system and what it means to be a teacher, but also implied a cultural change inside each individual school building.

The study shows how the first teacher system replaced the lead teacher ditto.

Position Legitimised by Colleagues

The exact tasks of lead teachers had been relatively vague, but they had had their position legitimised by the other teachers in the same teacher team, which consisted of all teachers who taught in the same subject domain at a school. The lead teacher had a strong powerbase when it came to headteachers’ decisions of concern to the teacher team. The responsibilities of first teachers became much more precisely formulated. The tasks of first teachers were essentially limited to the management and evaluation of school development. Instead of being legitimised by colleagues, first teachers were legitimised by the school management,’ says Karlsson.

The assessment of who should be appointed first teacher focused mainly on organisational skills and a rather unspecified ‘teacher competence’, although some formal criteria were indeed available. And whereas in the past, lead teachers had mainly represented their respective staff groups, the loyalty of first teachers was more ambiguous as they in some cases, whether they wanted it or not, acted as an extension of the school management.

Erlandson and Karlsson point to a change in the view of how teachers viewed both their own profession and the values that have long been assigned central importance in their chosen occupation. An increase in behaviour based on self-interest was revealed not least through the observation that many teachers who were extremely critical of the reform chose to apply for positions as first teacher. Several teachers felt that the first teacher reform has led to a weaker focus on collaboration and dealing together with shared issues and a stronger focus on competition and individualism.

30 Years of Gradual Change

‘But we also tried to understand the first teacher reform and the transformation of the school system in light of the gradual changes that have occurred in the education domain both nationally and internationally in the past 30 years. Two clear steps in the transformation process can be discerned for the Swedish school system specifically. First a decentralisation of the operation of schools from national to municipal level, and then a private school reform that led to increased marketization of education. In this way, the first teacher reform can be considered in a wider context,’ says Erlandson.

The authors of the article argue that behind a veil consisting of a rather slow administrative evolution in the school system, there has been a political revolution. It is this revolution that the teachers, through the fundamental revision of the school culture and its transformation of central value systems, now have become aware of.

The article, titled From Trust to Control – the Swedish First Teacher Reform, has been published in the scholarly journal Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice.

För more information:
Mikael R Karlsson, +46 707873431, email:
Peter Erlandson, +46 705171105, email: