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Individual education plans – impressions and expressions

Lisa Asp-Onsjö
Gothenburg University, Sweden. Email:

Paper to be presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Crete, 22-25 September 2004


The purpose of the present study is to explore different discourses that underpin the use of Individual Education Plans (IEP) in Swedish schools. The production and usage of these IEP´s are a legal obligation for compulsory school at all grades in the school system. The design of these IEP documents is regulated by the Swedish Education Act (SFS 1985:1100). Although some guidelines are given concerning the production and construction of these documents there are great variety both in the creation and usage of IEP´s in different schools. The thesis aims at analysing the discursive meanings created within this institutional practice where these IEP´s are constructed. A subordinated aim of the thesis is to explore how these "pupils in difficulties" are constituted and described in these documents and also to scrutinize the interplay between different actors in this process.

Armstrong (2004) and Riddell (2004) describes that although these documents are intended to act as documents for differentiation of the overall learning condition of the pupil, they can sometimes also proceed in a contradictive way due to different social conditions. Instead of focusing the learning conditions, the deficits of the pupils are the main center of attention (Persson & Andreasson, 2003). The problems are seen as residing inside the child and not in the interaction between the pupil and the context (Mehan, 1986: Hjörne, 2004: Börjesson & Palmblad).

Theoretical framework

The theoretical perspective employed in these study is textual and discourse analysis. As Potter & Wetherell (1987) claims, "text and talk is not merely about actions, events and situations, it is also a potent and constituitive part of those actions, events and situations" (s. 21). IEP´s can thus be seen as artifacts that construct and mediate the identity of an individual to a wider context (Säljö, 2000).

The main theoretical position, thus, in analyzing these documents is adopted from Fairclough (1989, 1992). He views textual analysis as part of social change on a broader level. This Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) is executed in a three-dimensional way. The approach investigates discursive change in relation to social and cultural change. The first concept is manifested in linguistic form as "text", spoken as well as written. This step of the analysis in the actual study concerns scrutiny of the IEP documents but also of the recorded transcripts of the field studies. The second concept is the discursive practice, which involves the process of text production, distribution, and consumption. In this part of the recent study, the attention is directed towards the form of the meetings when the personnel, the parents and the pupil meet. Hence, focus is directed towards factors such as if the documents is prewritten or written as a protocol afterwards. Questions that are put in focus in this part of the study are: How do the representatives for different interests participate in dialogue concerning what kind of pedagogical measures that are proposed? Which voices, in a Bahtinian sense (1981), are heard in the discussion? The discursive practice also incorporates the concept of intertextuality, in which texts are historically transforming the past into the present. In this case, it addresses issues such as observing traces of previous documents in the actual one.

The last step in this process is the framing of the previous steps into a wider social context. In this concept Fairclough (1989, 1992) operates with a hegemonic model of social practice related to ideology and power. He claims that ideologies arise within societies characterized by relations of domination on the basis of class, gender, cultural group, and so forth. These ideologies, embedded in the discursive practices are most effective when they become neutralized and attain the status of common sense. In the actual study this step concerns how the texts and discursive practices are incorporated in the wider context of the concrete school practice due to certain local factors. Here hegemony is viewed as something that is constructing alliances, and integrating rather than simply dominating. Textual analysis of this kind can be seen both as theory and method and are further described in my thesis.

In this paper I will also present some empirical findings related to dialogicity. Finally I will discuss some of these findings in relation to the production and usage of these IEP`s and their capacity to support inclusion.

The design of the study

The actual study is a cooperation project between Gothenburg University and the municipality of Gislaved, a minor community in the south of Sweden. As mentioned above the present paper does not deal with the study as whole, but takes its starting point in an overall description of the thesis and then introduces some of the results concerning ways of reasoning related to construction of IEP´s in the observed schools

The study is carried out in a mutli - method manner, the different parts are described below. The main center of attention in these various studies is the use of the language in spoken or written form. During the analysis of the results, the six schools are split into two different groups where the four schools with pupils from grade 1-6 are studied separately from the two schools with pupils from grade 7-9. These groups are in a later step compared to each other.

The quantitative study

The survey questionnaires were created in a group composed of representatives from each of the 12 compulsory school areas in the municipality where the study is executed. This part of the study served as guidance for the continuing parts. A dialogical process was hence initiated in the schools. The questionnaire deals with different aspects, such as the complexity of problems described, how the pedagogical surroundings are adapted, participation of various personnel in the staff, and collaboration between the staff, the parents, and the pupil himself. Data from the 961 questionnaires was collected and analyzed. The results show that the variation between the examined schools is large. This fact is due partly to differences in the social environment, the size of the school, and to different ages of the participating pupils. However, some of the variation can also be seen as result concerning different ways of communicating in relation to the production of these IEP´s at the examined schools.

Field observations and case-studies

For examination of the prescribed practice as it unfolds, a sample of six pupils described as pupils with different kinds of difficulties, are selected from the various school areas in the actual municipality. There are also a variety of pupils from different grades represented in these cases. Interviews with a range of key-persons of importance for the cases are recorded and analyzed: the pupil, his or her parents, the schoolteacher, the special educator, other specialists and the headmaster of the school. The variation of the different discourses represented in speech and texts are then explored.

The cases are further investigated with field observations and field notes to examine the different discourses at work within the studied practices. The local staff meetings at the selected schools are recorded, transcribed, and analysed. The meetings in which the parents and pupils take part are also recorded. Field notes are made of the pupil’s interaction in the classroom. Further analysis of the specific modes of interaction is then to be compared with the investigation of the local discourses of the actual school.

Textual analyses

Numerous IEP´s where collected at the same time as the quantitative questionnaires was administered. These documents are going to be extensively analysed on a broader level concerning development of local discourses at different schools and school areas. The IEP´s collected for the pupils in the case studies range from early documents to recent ones. These documents are being scrutinized due to diverse ways of reasoning and handling concerning pupil’s difficulties. There differences do also have concrete consequences both for pupils and parents as well as for institutions.


The results show that 17 % of all the pupils in the municipality have an action plan, 67 % of these are written for boys and 33 % for girls. Gender differences are thus large. Studies from UK (Armstrong, 2004) indicate that the percentage of boys increases when the difficulties are perceived as more severe. Gender is thus a vital factor for school success but is not the focus of this paper. The variation between schools, regarding the relation between documented needs and the presence of IEP´s, lies between 53 % and 95 %. The results indicate that there is a great difference between schools as to their concern with action plans. Some of the variation is related to well known factors such as disparity of ages of the pupils and different socio economic factors. Some of the variation, however, can be acquainted within different local discourses.

The outcome concerning participation, however, points out that that school differs widely. One indicator of this variation is the diverse degree of participation of pupils and parents. The degree of participation is important because when teachers report a higher degree of part taking from parents and pupils, they simultaneity report higher estimates of their possibilities to achieve better results for the pupils involved.

The Bill of the Comprehensive school (SFS 2000: 1108) requires that participation from pupils and parents is a necessary prerequisite for the construction of an IEP plan. Results show that the staff cooperates to a certain and growing degree. In contradiction to this, the study shows that the involvement of the pupils and parents are still at a low level. The results also show that with a growing extent of parental involvement the teachers estimate increased possibilities for the pupil to achieve better results. The hegemonic structures act in favor for the staff. Also, the formalized language in the documents seems to promote a hindrance for parental collaboration.

Table 1. Degree of estimated success compared with parental participation.

Degree of estimated success (%)

Degree of parental participation

Not at all


Quite a lot

High level


Not at all












Quite a lot






High level






The result shows that the recent parameters correlate. This fact does not necessarily show that the students obtain better results. What they possibly show is that the targets are more sensitively set with a greater degree of parental participation.

Communication as it is used within these meetings can appear in a horizontal and symmetrical mode where different points of view can be seen as beneficial for the process, a conflict perspective (Habermas,1988). It can also emerge in a more vertical and asymmetrical way, where one position is conceived as "the right way", a consensus perspective. A local discourse can be characterized by its mode of communicating either by distance and asymmetrical power positioning or by closeness and symmetry (Croona, 2003). I have selected two cases to illustrate the different modes of communication, the case of Peter and Ellen.

The case of Peter

Peter is a pupil in grade 8, upper secondary school who is described as a pupil with reading and writing difficulties in grade 7. During his 8th year in school the description is changing to general weakness. In the following sequence Peter and his mother are attending a meeting with two of the teachers in the class. These teachers have before this conference collected information from the other teachers concerning the performance of Peter. This has not been done at a meeting, instead the teachers have distributed their opinions in short handwritten notes collected by the teachers Elsie and Ben. This work unit can thus be characterized by its lack of dialogue and both by distance and asymmetrical power relations as in the following dialogue.

Teacher Elsie: Now it is like this, you are going to get an extra lesson in language which is located parallel with physics, which is not so good. But we have to start like that and see how it works. The extra teacher wants you to read literature loudly and quietly during these lessons. That is what you are going to exercise there. I think that is good.

Peter: Mm.

Teacher Elsie: Then you are going to make a choice tomorrow. What are you going to choose?

Peter: I don’t know…

Teacher Elsie: Oh, yes. You know that you are going to choose physics’!

In the dialogue the lack of authentic communication is manifested. Peter thinks that he is going to answer a true question, but the matter was rather a rhetorical one. His answer was understood literally. The two teachers are further proposing various ways of resolving the problems from their points of view.

Teacher Ben: Well, for the future it is not so much change; we want you to go on like you do now, continuous exercise of reading and righting and shorter and easier courses. Then it is our concern to tell all the other teachers about it, but that is up to us and our distress….

Peter: Hmm…

Teacher Elsie: I hope that you will not be afraid to tell us if it is too difficult? Or if you don’t understand, you don’t have to be afraid. We are not so dangerous.

Although both Peter and his mother are attending the meeting a autentic dialogue is lacking and the communication is formalized rather than real. The dialogue is continuing to bee an asymmetrical one, characterized by distance. The manner of communicating seems to be a vital factor for inclusion. In Peter’s school with the asymmetrical way of conversation, the dialogue goes on to the situation when the documents are going to be signed by all the actors.

Teacher Elsie: Well, we have to evaluate this process later on, although we are not sure of how the development in this work unit is going on. She is starting to work today, the new special educator. We will see how this is proceeding later on. That is a question for the teachers. If we see that everything is falling apart for Peter, we have to react. But I do not believe that is going to be the case.

Teacher Ben: Do you think that this is OK? Even you, Peter you are going to sign it.

Peter: Yes.

Teacher Ben: Shall we go forward with this manner of working, then?

Teacher Elsie: We have to get a new pencil. Peter, you are the principal character, you are going to sign it first!

Teacher Ben: You can find the line, can you?

Teacher Elsie: You are going to get a copy of this later. I will send one home.

Mother: We put it up on the fridge in the kitchen; we make a frame around it.

Teacher Elsie: So now you know that if there are some problems, you can come to us again.

Here, the tendency to speak over the head of the pupil is evident. Peter is made somewhat invisible although he is attending the meeting. Sometimes he is addressed as the principal character but sometimes he is described as quite an insufficient actor. As to what I observed during these field studies, the document was constructed before the meeting, the pupil and his mother were intended to sign the ready - made document without any changes in the text. Evidently, there is also a predisposition to objectification of Peter; he is constructed as a quite young child, quite far from a 8th grade student. The IEP is not seen as a changeable, interactive document but as a fixed artifact piled up on the fridge at home. Although Peter has minor difficulties and are socially well adapted he runs the risk of not reaching the goals. In this way he is excluded from attaining higher education.

The case of Ellen

As a contrast to this, the culture of one of other schools in the study draws on different discourses towards communication. This later school is characterized by a culture of closeness and a way of communicating in a more symmetrical manner. Here, the pupil Ellen have quite severe difficulties, she is mentally retarded in a distinct manner, although she is included in a regular class, grade 3. Ellen herself is therefore not attending the meeting. This sequence is selected from a meeting in the work unit when the regular teacher, the assistant teacher and the special teacher are discussing the proceeding work. In Sweden, it is common to have a pupil assistant who does not have any pedagogical education to serve children with severe difficulties (Jakobsson, 2002). This way of arrangement is even more frequent when mentally retarded children are included in regular classes.

Special educator: Well, it hits me, how does it function with a schedule fore Ellen now? Have you constructed one so that she knows what to do now and what comes later on?

Pupil assistant : Well, we introduce the daily work in the morning together with Ellen. Then, when we are going to start, I ask Ellen - What are we going to do now? I use to ask her what she wants to do. Now she usually goes and fetches her things in the box, so that we can start working. After that is completed, she usually work with paper, tear pieces of it and make pictures with glue and colors.

Special educator: Is it a daily routine? Well that was our intention, wasn’t it?

The voice of the special educator communicates with the voice of the pupil assistant in quite a symmetrical way. Although the special educator presupposes a written schedule, she accepts that it was exchanged in to a concrete daily routine. The intention of structuring the day for the pupil was completed even in this manner. The power of defining the problem and its solution is shared in a more symmetrical way in the sequence. Concerning Ellen’s situation the dialogue is frequent and almost on a daily basis both within the staff and with the parents. All of the participants point this out as a necessity caused by the challenge of including a pupil like Ellen in a regular class.

Special educator: Often we do like this; Ellen is working together with me in my room, then Jonna (the pupil assistant) takes over and goes on working with the same material in the classroom. Then Ellen is familiar with the stuff but she works with it in a new environment. It has worked out well, so far. We have to remind our selves of what a huge job we all made last year!

Class teacher: And the buttons, do you remember? She sat there with five buttons. And it took such a long time…

Special educator: And yesterday she made twenty nuts, we can think that it is simple job, but actually it is not.

Pupil assistant : She can work much longer, now. She can sit down and concentrate for quite a while, when she is painting or drawing or something of that kind.

Special educator: When I read the latest document I was thinking of how often we sit down and talk about Ellen. We are often correlating that we are on the same track, so to speak. That’s good for Ellen. We make the same things in the classroom as in my room, but in different ways in different situations of course. Wee cooperate in a constructive way, although it is not always so easy. And that is beneficial for Ellen, I do think.

The special-educator has a central position in this dialogue. She is leading the discussion and drawing up the guidelines for the adjustment of the pedagogy. She also verbalizes how the different members of the staff work together for providing satisfactory learning conditions for Ellen. Anyhow, the way of reasoning and handling concerning the use of IEP is facilitating inclusion by the manner that it is creating an arena for pedagogic innovation. Although Ellen is mentally retarded and still using napkins she is well adapted and belonging in the group.

Although, these two cases are chosen to demonstrate different ways of communicating, they are excerpts from different kinds of occasions and therefore not totally comparable. In the case of Peter, both the parents and the pupil are present at the meeting, whilst this is not the case in the meeting concerning Ellen. Here, the excerpt is selected from an occasion when only the personnel are attending the meeting. In spite of the fact that Ellens performance is much more fragile, due to the fact that she is not even attending the meeting, it is worth noticing that her voice is still influential due to the discourse in the actual work unit. A more horizontal and symmetrical dialogue acts in favor for adapting Ellens learning conditions.



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This document was added to the Education-line database on 20 October 2004