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

Published: 25 Jan 2013 14:50 GMT+01:00

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.

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.

Your comments about this article

15:57 January 25, 2013 by StockholmSam
Well, that article went absolutely nowhere...
16:19 January 25, 2013 by snarky
I agree, Stockholm Sam.

I understand a parent being concerned, but geesh.....worry much?!

Why not try public school for the 4th grade and see how he gets on, that to me would be the most logical.
16:25 January 25, 2013 by Youdee
We followed my mother-in-law's lead. She put the kids in the local Swiss school (rather than the Swedish school), so that the kids lived in close proximity to home and their friends. She did not want to fill her days driving the four kids around town.
17:26 January 25, 2013 by grymagnusson
will you please just stop writing. Stop.
20:39 January 25, 2013 by Programmeny
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
22:12 January 25, 2013 by BennyOBenny
She's right. You choose a school a based upon which other choices there are to compare and there aren't too many of those. State or nothing!
00:29 January 26, 2013 by zeulf
Another attempt , but?? So its hard to find a "good" school for Your 4th grader . hard to believe, We are all sure You want the best for him. Just be sure to encourage him, allow Him to seek his interests. and make sure he learns the native language, so if he stays there, he will not look or feel out of place. Most but not all swedes are well educated, just look around and ask Yourself. How well are they doing in the world??

So you taught in public schools but doubt the validity of reported test scores??

and he has a medical reason to change schools, there are so many variables in this equation, you are the most important variable in helping him Good luck and have a positive attitude.
08:58 January 26, 2013 by skogsbo
An over controlling parent is more likely to hinder his development than any school choice, those apron strings won't be cut until he is in his 30s, those poor future girlfriends of his!

If you plan to remain here, he must really school locally, build friends and associates, through school and sports, these will become his future network for work and play.
12:45 January 26, 2013 by Florida Gater
To the trolls: will you please stop writing. Stop.

To everyone else:

We were really happy with neighborhood schools until our daughter reached 5th grade, then we had a similar problem as this author. No local schools, and no idea how to select a new schools. This problem is especially hard for ex-pats that have less connection with the word-of-mouth recommendations. By the time I figured out what my choices were, we were way out of the running, since most parents had had their kids on waitlists for years.
14:49 January 26, 2013 by shinnam
As an Ex-pat, and someone that has taught in three counties, I can say American parents are "worried" about good schools because they are unwilling to take time away from their careers to spent time with their kids. Some how schools are supposed to be able to do the nurturing they don't have because they are chasing money. One thing that make Sweden strong is that parents do take time with thier kids.
21:27 January 26, 2013 by Logic_and_Reason
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
03:37 January 27, 2013 by Hunner1210
As an American, I'm glad the author (an American) didn't try and compare this situation with the situation in the US. Because in the US, unless you want to spend a ton of money to send your kid to a private school (which majority are religious-affiliated schools), you go to whatever school the district you live in has chosen for you- and thats it. No options or choices. Also, complaining that English among most other Swedes in the schools isn't as good as the English your half-American (therefore exposed to alot of English) child speaks isn't completely valid, given that its Sweden and they (naturally) speak more Swedish than anything.
09:24 February 2, 2013 by Logic_and_Reason
"But are English schools actually good for English speakers?"

Put your kid in a Swedish school then come back in ten years and tell us how his English writing skills stack up. Or do this: go to several Swedish schools and start speaking English with the students (and the English teacher). Then go to the local English school and start speaking English with them. The difference is like night and day. Then again, the English school students' Swedish skills do suffer, so take that into account.

"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."

Forget test scores in Sweden. The national tests are graded by the students' own teachers. Not only will two teachers grade these tests differently but many teachers avoid having too many fails among their students and will inflate grades to make themselves look better. This is especially problematic in Sweden's big English school company that you are considering because they use such scores for marketing; the pressure to inflate test scores is significant. I know because I taught there for years. Only a truly anonymous and objective national testing system, which Sweden lacks, has any merit.

One last word about Sweden's glorious English free schools of which Britain is so enamored: beware. They have many untrained, uncertified teachers and many who are certified are highly inexperienced. Those schools cut costs by paying the teachers very low wages (far below national averages, which are already below EU averages by a wide margin). They consider older, more experienced teachers to be too expensive to hire. This leads to very high teacher turnover (check the statistics) and those that are there at any given moment are just learning to handle the dynamics of the classroom and the structure of the Swedish curriculum, which for most is quite unfamiliar.
19:49 May 4, 2013 by KossBoss
"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."

Yes, in Finland the classes are mixed where high achieving students are encouraged to help the weaker ones. It's a known fact that by explaining to others you also help to improve and deepen your own knowledge and skills. To explain something to others requires that you really understand the material yourself and increases the chances to detect if you don't, which forces you to reconsider your own knowledge. That's also why PhD students, at least in this country, are obliged to conduct a certain amount of teaching time to undergraduate students.

So your friend's daughter is actually helping and improving herself by also helping other students.
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