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'It's hard to know how to find a good school'

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14:50 CET+01:00
With her own young son soon to change schools in Sweden, US-native and parent Rebecca Ahlfeldt investigates the struggles in finding the most suitable option.

Recently, Sweden's free schools, or friskolor, have come under scrutiny. Specifically, the free school system has been criticized for a lack of oversight.

We as a family have been paying close attention to this discussion because, within the next years, we are considering enrolling our son Erik in one of these schools.

While Erik's school situation works for now, for some health-related reasons, we need to find another school for him by 4th grade.

It's hard to know where to start looking or even how to look for a good school in Sweden.

The only hard data I can find is national test scores, but after many years of teaching in public schools, I'm skeptical about these scores' validity, as there are so many ways for a school to manipulate them.

One school where I taught pressured the lower scorers in the district to transfer to an “alternative school,” for example. By senior year, graduation rates and national test scores looked impressive because the struggling students were gone.

Test scores might be more helpful if they were broken down into subgroups: How well do students with another home language do? Students with special needs?

Students below at or below the poverty line? Girls versus boys? This data would at least suggest how well the school handles diverse needs of the students.

I called to see if I could get this data. Not available, I was told. To me? Or does National Agency for Education (Skolverket) not have the data?

Therefore, I'm left with starting my search based on word-of-mouth. It remains to be seen whether this will lead us anywhere good.

Our search has taken us in various directions, including the International English School.

Back when we moved to Stockholm, we followed a friend's suggestion and put Erik on the school's waiting list “just in case.” It is not too far from our house, and one of Erik's friends who also speaks English at home is strongly considering going there as well.

It seems like a natural choice. But is it a good one?

The test scores, if I'm even going to consider them, look fine. But without other data about specific population subsets, it's hard to compare these scores with those of nearby neighbourhood schools.

Compared to our local school, students there seem to excel in English compared to their Swedish-only peers. Since they're spending a lot more class time on English than those other peers, I'd sure hope they're doing better.

But are English schools actually good for English speakers?

The intuitive answer might be yes, but after hearing some anecdotal reports as well as reading some of the research behind bilingual schools, I'm not so sure.

Erik is a comfortable English speaker. This would put him at or near the top of the class when he arrived, since the English school students predominantly come from non-English households.

The daughter of an American friend began at one of these schools this year. My friend reports that her daughter spends most of the class time translating for other students-a useful skill, but not exactly what she had in mind for her daughter's 4th grade English experience.

How long will this “transition period” last, she wonders?

Considering all these points, I don't want to choose the English school solely on the basis of test scores or on the premise of English improvement. So where does this leave me?

I needed to take a step back and consider the definition of a good school. Of course, these days, there's data on this topic as well.

Some of it is surprising. For example, research suggests that homework is irrelevant and even counter-productive. As Alfie Cohn details in his well-researched book The Homework Myth, there is no conclusive research showing that homework provides any long-term gains for elementary and middle school students, neither academically nor by any other measure.

Story continues below…

Other evidence intuitively makes sense. As this Atlantic article describes, Finland's education model, consistently ranked one of the best in the world, serendipitously raised their test scores and other measures of success when focusing on something entirely different: equity and cooperation.

As a teacher, I could immediately understand why: I can personally attest that everyone learns better if every single student is on the same page, working toward the same goals. And as a parent, these priorities also resonate personally: Erik should have the same opportunities as his peers and should work together with them, regardless of his health challenges.

So we're looking for a school that prioritizes equity and cooperation. And what school would say it doesn't?

The trick for us is to find the schools that really do.

The schools agency and the Swedish Schools Inspectorate (Skolinspektionen) collect at least some of this “soft” information about how happy parents and students are with their schools-I know this because I've filled out many questionnaires.

How do these departments follow up on their findings? And how can parents learn from them?

Having a system of schools of choice only works if we parents can make informed decisions. And to do this, we all need more information.

Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American ex-pat writer, translator and editor currently based in Stockholm.

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