Menntaumbætur og afdrif þeirra: Fyrstu tíu ár heildstæðrar þjónustu og reksturs grunnskóla hjá Reykjavíkurborg 1996–2005

Translated title of the contribution: Educational improvement initiatives and their fate: The story of the first 10 years of compulsory education governed by the City of Reykjavík 1996–2005

Anna Kristín Sigurðardóttir, Gerður G. Óskarsdóttir, Guðbjörg Andrea Jónsdóttir, Ingunn Gísladóttir, Steinunn Stefánsdóttir

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Policy-making and reform initiatives by public authorities, the state or municipalities to improve education are links in the development of schools and educational systems worldwide. However, comprehensive contemporary reports on the implementation of educational policy issues and analyses of their fate or impact are rare.

In this paper, the focus is on policy-making and initiatives for improvement in the municipality of Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, at a current milestone in the country´s history of education. In 1995 a new law regulating compulsory education (from age 6 to 15) was confirmed, including a switch of responsibility for the operation of schools from the state to the municipalities – in the spirit of decentralization.

The aim of this paper is; (a) to portray educational improvement projects within the compulsory system in Reykjavík, undertaken by the city during the first 10 years after the transfer, 1996–2005, including policy-making, policy preparation, and implementation as well as coherence within activities and among participants; and (b) to shed light on the fate of the improvement initiatives at the school sites, based on available research results and other information. Under investigation are five main areas of emphasis in the city’s 10-year scenario for the schools: individualized and cooperative learning, inclusion, support of student self-image and social skills, school–community relations, and finally, school autonomy and equality in their operational context. Many ideas about educational change, especially as regards teaching and learning, are indeed rooted in century-old theories – for example, Dewey’s and Key’s – as well as in traditional Icelandic educational concerns (Dewey, 1916/1966; Key, 1902/1911; Loftur Guttormsson, 2008a, 2008b). Ideas and expectations concerning policy-making were collected every year, at meetings either with teachers and other staff in the 40 schools in the city or with representatives from different groups, including parents. School heads were involved at all stages. Professional and leadership development was part of each main emphasis. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected and analysed as a basis for policy-making.

Descriptions of the scope and organization of the field and the coverage of the reform initiatives are based on contemporary documents backed by references to the literature and international dialogue on education. As a benchmark for the evaluation of these initiatives, seven guidelines are presented that scholars have identified as characterizing successful educational improvements as summarized by Anna Kristín Sigurðardóttir (2019). These include a focus on teaching and learning; targeted actions based on reliable data; coherence and collaboration among leaders and practitioners characterizing all efforts; a focus on professional learning and leadership at all levels; policy, practice and professional learning informed by evidence; parents as active collaborators; and finally, a clear equity stance taken in policy and practice at all levels.

Research results, from the years following the period under investigation, indicate that improvements focusing on the external context of teaching and student learning, such as single-shift schools, changes in the design of school buildings and canteens in every school, have sustained the decisions taken. This also applies to school independence, including student-focused financing, human resource consulting and an increased number of professionals in the schools such as school counsellors, middle managers, and paraprofessionals. Research results revealing the teachers’ call for professional leadership, however, point to less progress than expected. The realization of individualized and cooperative learning and inclusion seemed to be by precept rather than occurring in practice. Despite widespread cooperation and comprehensive support through professional development and consulting, anticipated teaching approaches have not taken root in daily school practices, although the concepts of individualized learning and inclusion are widespread in educational discussion in Iceland. These results support theories on the repetition of initiatives for change and general conservatism in the system (Jón Torfi Jónasson, 2016; Tyack and Cuban, 1995). School–community relations also seemed to be weakly organized. Student self-image and related issues are still in focus in educational policy-making and repeatedly studied, but it is difficult to evaluate their development. The educational policy and improvement initiatives undertaken in the period of discussion in the city of Reykjavík, seem, indeed, to be to some extent characterized by the above-mentioned guidelines which, as scholars have presumed, distinguish successful educational improvements. They include policy and targeted actions informed by evidence, a focus on teaching and learning strategies, professional leadership, equity in the external context of the schools, cooperation between school leaders and district administration, a focus on professional development, parental involvement and coherence among focal issues. However, the results revealed the difficulties in interrelating practitioners at the school sites and the school district administration and there is no evidence available on how the policy was interpreted within the schools.

It is to be hoped that this study of a past period will help us to understand more explicitly the process of educational policy-making and implementation today, and how educational policy may evolve in future.

Translated title of the contributionEducational improvement initiatives and their fate: The story of the first 10 years of compulsory education governed by the City of Reykjavík 1996–2005
Original languageIcelandic
Publication statusPublished - 18 Feb 2022

Other keywords

  • Compulsory schools
  • Policy
  • Educational improvement
  • Decentralisation
  • Educational evaluation


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