Q&A with Per Kornhall: Swedish Association of Educational Writers

The start of a new series of interviews with international educational author groups and organisations, from our Educational Writers Group. Here, we talk to Per Kornhall, chair of the Swedish Association of Educational Writers, about priorities, challenges and policy work.

Could you tell us about yourself, your writing and your involvement with the Swedish Association of Educational Writers?

I have a PhD in biology and a Swedish teacher’s diploma, after working as a teacher, at a Governmental agency and university. I am now an independent consultant and author. My main interests are within the field of education and I have written a number of books intended for use in the professional development of teachers and principals. I am also the chair of Läromedelsförfattarna (The Swedish Association of Educational Writers), which is a member-driven interest organisation for all authors of teaching materials and course literature in Sweden. 

Could you tell us about history and structure of the Swedish Association of Educational Writers? Do you have staff members or rely on volunteers? Do you run events mostly in your HQ or around the country too?

It started a little over 60 years ago as a small association of writers of teaching materials for schools. Now, we have headquarters with six staff members in Stockholm. We try to have activities around the country to give members a chance to take part in activities. Sweden is a rather large country with the northern parts more sparsely populated, so it is always a consideration we need to do.

What are the key aspects of the Association’s work? 

The aim of the organisation is to safeguard educational writers’ rights by negotiating agreements with publishers and authorities, and by offering authors legal advice on copyright and contracts. We also offer educational writers a membership community with different activities, such as courses and meetings. We work politically to strengthen the role of teaching materials in the educational ecosystem.

An important aspect of the organisation – and something that finances much of what we do – is the management of collective rights that generates incomes through collective licensing of copyrights. We are a part of Bonus Copyright Access, which is a collective rights management organisation that acts as intermediary/facilitator between rightsholders and users in the fields of reprographic reproduction and certain digital uses. Most of the funds from this licensing goes through us to authors in the form of scholarships (last year around €2.4 million) – but other collective benefits, such as legal advice, are also funded through these revenues.

How large is the Swedish Association of Educational Writers? What are the main activities, campaigns or events?

Today we have 1,700 members who are authors of teaching materials in all subjects, for all levels, from pre-school to higher education. The main activities are courses for authors, scholarships and a prize. We also own a house in Visby on Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic, that our members can rent for a low cost. We are present at educational fairs, lobby for the importance of teaching materials, and we try to keep track of relevant research and so on.

What are the main challenges educational authors experience these days, in your view? 

In Sweden the main challenges in the school system have been a negative discourse around textbooks since the late 1980s. Together with a neoliberal agenda within the educational system, which has made it harder for teachers to buy textbooks, it has caused a diminished market and lack of equivalence in access to textbooks for students. We think the negative discourse has started to change, and one example of that is that the Government has assigned an investigator to look into textbook use in the schools. He is due to present his findings in August and we are hopeful that he will propose changes that will be positive for textbook use in Sweden and thus also for our authors. 

Most of our authors write in their spare time because they have a deep devotion to education and/or their subject. We try to make a case for teaching materials as an essential part of literature for children and young people. There is a lot of concern about the fact that Swedish children read less now than before. But in those discussions, teaching materials are totally absent. A couple of studies have shown that teachers can’t buy what they deem necessary but mentions the enormously strong support there is among both students and parents for textbooks and other teaching materials.

Other than that, the ‘digitalisations’ (plural chosen deliberately) is something that affects both schools and higher education, and therefore us, as authors. Changes in use of textbooks, the ‘Wild West’ of the digital markets and the carelessness about author rights in them, etc, are of course very important things that closely monitor development on and work with.

How much does the curriculum in your subject/government education policy determine what you write?

For schools – a lot. It is very difficult to sell a book that does not comply with or addresses the national curricula, its content and grading system. This has become increasingly important due to a high pressure on delivery of visible results in the system (in the form of grades or results in the national testing system). The whole New Public Management idea and the privatisation of the Swedish school system has put increasing pressure on schools and teachers to produce results, and that anxiety is also important when they choose teaching materials. Publishers, and we as authors, have to adapt to this.

What are the most recent success stories from your work?

I think that the current Governmental investigation already is, and will become even more so, an important milestone for us. We have already been able to make a difference during this period – but there is still a long way to go. The investigator will deliver the report in August and then it has to become policy in a turbulent Parliament. Bu the fact that it came about was a success for us in the first place, and we felt that the investigator listened to us very respectfully – which was important for a number of reasons, particularly because due to the neglect of teaching materials in the Swedish system, very little was known about the situation. Therefore, our studies have become quite important for the investigator.

We also know that many of the demands that we put forward in the beginning of this process will, with a high probability, be proposed by him. We now also see that, through our work, editorials that support teaching materials and the General Director of the Swedish National Agency for Education have suddenly started talking about teaching materials as an important means to equality in the school system.

Another success story is that we will partly sponsor Sweden’s first professor in non-fictional prose. This is an important way to try to influence higher education into seeing that writing teaching materials is a skilful trade. We could also distribute more scholarships than ever before.

The Association also has a new web design, communication strategy and a newly designed magazine. We feel like we have been able to do a lot of progress in spite of the terrible pandemic that has put a stop to much of our normal activity.