Unrest plagues schools in Oslo

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The looming summer holidays probably can’t come soon enough for teachers and city officials in the Oslo school system. After months of conflicts over unruly students, frustrated teachers, complaints over their alleged lack of freedom of expression and scathing criticism of the schools’ top administrator, the city goverment official in charge of it all is finally launching a full examination of what she calls “an uncomfortable situation.”

It looks like a peaceful place, but Ulsrud High School was the scene of classroom disruption that’s ended up disrupting Oslo’s entire school system. PHOTO: Osloskolen

“I think we need to examine today’s situation and make sure we get all the facts on the table about how things really are,” Inga Marte Thorkildsen of the Socialist Left party (SV) told newspaper Dagsavisen on Thursday.

Thorkildsen had continued to support the director of Oslo schools, former Labour Party politician Astrid Søgnen, who has been at the center of complaints about an alleged “culture of fear” among teachers and lower-level administrators. Dagsavisen reported earlier this week on a serious complaint filed against Søgnen four years ago that suggests all the unrest this spring is nothing new but rather has simply boiled over and grabbed public attention.

The complaint against Søgnen reportedly was all but suppressed and Thorkildsen’s predecessor, current Labour Minister Anniken Hauglie of the Conservative Party, didn’t follow up on it. Now Hauglie is a target of criticism, too.

Catalytic airing of frustrations
The catalyst for the past few months of unrest dates back to March 5, when a teacher at Ulsrud High School in the eastside Bøler district of Oslo described on state broadcaster NRK’s national radio news program Dagsnytt Atten just how chaotic his own classroom could be. Simon Malkenes’ description hit home with hundreds of other teachers who feel they lack support and resources from the city schools’ administrators.

Teacher Simon Malkenes unleashed his colleagues’ frustration by speaking out on national radio and then being scolded for expressing his opinion. That earned him a prestigious prize that hails freedom of expression and was recently awarded to Malkenes by the Oslo-based organization Fritt Ord. PHOTO: Fritt Ord

Instead of taking steps to remedy the situation, though, Ulsrud officials seemed to back the unruly teenage students who complained they’d been “hung out” by their teacher’s nationally broadcasted comments. The school opened a personnel case against Malkenes.

Debate exploded, with teachers and their representatives at labour organization Utdanningsforbundet claiming Malkenes was being muzzled and punished for criticizing Oslo’s school system. Malkenes became a symbol for how teachers who want to highlight poor conditions and a lack of discipline in the schools can be denied freedom of expression.

The unrest climaxed in mid-May, when hundreds of teachers and lecturers demonstrated in front of the Norwegian Parliament. Steffen Handal, leader of their labour federation, started off by thanking Malkenes for being “a brave voice” who showed how problems tied to school admissions- and finance policy have hurt the teaching environment. He credited Malkenes for “launching a great movement” that also earned Malkenes a prestigious prize from the Norwegian organization that champions freedom of expression, Fritt Ord (Free Word). Many other teachers have been busy writing letters and commentaries in support of Malkenes, and thus airing their own frustration with the public school system.

Schools’ director strikes back
Things got worse, though, just two weeks after the teachers’ demonstration, when the city held a hearing on freedom of expression in Oslo schools in response to all the fuss. Søgnen chose to read aloud from the students’ complaints against Malkenes, who had been under so much pressure that he’d gone out on sick leave. He wasn’t present to defend himself and Søgnen herself, described as “powerful” and a “tough” school director for the past 18 years, landed in trouble for her behaviour at the hearing. Professor Emeritus Jan Fridthjof Bernt, an expert on public management at the University of Bergen, was among those claiming Søgnen was out of line for revealing details of a personnel matter that had ended with an oral reprimand of Malkenes. “He should have had the opportunity to defend himself against the school director’s version of events at an open hearing,” Bernt told Dagsavisen.

At the center of the “uncomfortable situation” in Oslo’s public schools is Astrid Søgnen, a former Labour Party politician who has headed the city’s school administration for the past 18 years. Many have been calling for her resignation. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Calls began going out for Søgnen’s resignation. This week Dagsavisen revealed that Søgnen has been a controversial leader for many years, to the point that three of her closest and most trusted members of her management team went to the unusual step of filing a formal complaint against her in February 2014. They criticized her leadership style, claimed she’d created an environment of fear around her and was known for publicly scolding colleagues in the presence of others. Søgnen was described as “authoritarian” and “unpredictable,” and a boss who often resorted to “divide and conquer techniques” that prompted colleagues to mistrust one another. “The worst was to see others being yelled at and humiliated in front of colleagues,” one of those filing the complaint wrote.

Dagsavisen and other Norwegian media were reporting this week how the complaint not only was never followed up, but that it set off what employees called “a witchhunt” and a “cover-up.” Bente Fagerli, director in charge of educational matters for the city government, has admitted that the top politician at the time (now Labour Minister Hauglie) was only orally informed of the complaint in 2014, that Hauglie was not shown the written version and that Hauglie did not ask to be kept posted on it. The city’s political leadership did not pursue the warning against a top bureaucrat responsible for 15,000 employees in Oslo’s public school system.

Thorkildsen takes command
Hauglie, who later became a member of Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s conservative government coalition, wouldn’t even confirm that she was informed of the complaint against Søgnen, claiming it was inapproriate to comment on such personnel matters. “In the six years I was in city government I was made aware of several complaints about employees at various levels in the City of Oslo. I was informed that (the complaints) would be followed up by the administration, in line with guidelines for such cases, ” Hauglie wrote in an email to Dagsavisen.  Professor Bernt characterized that as an inadequate response: “In my opinion there was a clear weakness on the part of the administration if they didn’t make sure Hauglie was fully informed.” He also claimed Hauglie should have sought more information herself.

Inga Marte Thorkildsen, the top politician in charge of education for the City of Oslo, is left to settle conflicts that exploded this spring. PHOTO: SV

Now Hauglie’s successor, Inga Marte Thorkildsen of SV, claims she’ll take responsibility by launching an “external examination of the working environment within the education department centrally.” The allegations that have been made “are so serious that everyone is best-served by having them examined, also the director (Søgnen) herself.”

Thorkildsen didn’t want to comment on the complaint filed against Søgnen since that occurred before she took over as the city’s government official in charge of education. “I must take responsibility for today’s situation and making sure that complaints are taken seriously in the City of Oslo today,” Thorkildsen told Dagsavisen.

Søgnen herself has declined comment on the complaint against her from 2014 and on much of the controversy swirling around her, but has defended her behaviour at the hearing and pointed to exoneration by a city attorney. Thorkildsen has said she expects the schools’ administration to acknowledge the criticism “that has come from very many” and that “it’s a reality that very many feel there is a difficult climate for freedom of expression in the Oslo schools.”

Thorkildsen has also signaled “real changes in the way schools are run from the top. That means we will move from control, to development and cooperation with the schools.” Newspaper Aftenposten reported that Søgnen, who will turn 67 in November, has declined to comment on whether she will retire or intends to hold on to her post.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund