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Pressure is on - elite classes for younger students

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Pressure is on - elite classes for younger students
14:04 CEST+02:00
As the idea of elite education takes hold in Sweden, a country known for promoting equality, The Local's Karen Holst looks at the debate surrounding a decision to offer advanced classes to younger students.

Most parents believe their child is wicked smart, or at least one of the smartest in the class.

But what happens when a child really does perform head and shoulders above the rest?

In Sweden, higher-performing students have previously been used to motivate and elevate under-performing children, resulting in a lot of thumb twiddling while they waited for others to catch-up.

At the edge of a national education revolution, things are beginning to change.

While the Swedish government initiated a pilot ‘elite class' programme (spetsutbildningar) two years ago at the upper secondary level (gymnasiet or about 16- to 19-years-old), politicians recently voted to launch the same programme, known as spetsklasser, into a younger age bracket.

This highly controversial move signifies a major departure from the traditional school of thought that all students should receive an equal education and subject tests used to classify students based on performance were prohibited.

These advanced ‘elite' courses will now be introduced at the compulsory school level beginning in autumn 2012.

The elite classes will be offered to students in grades seven through nine, typically 12- to 16-years-old, who successfully complete a highly selective process based on stringent admissions testing.

Subject areas to be involved in the academically advanced education include English, mathematics, natural sciences, social studies and other languages.

This new rollout mirrors the model for high schoolers with one exception – the children are much younger when tested.

The claws of critics sharpened as a hotly contested debate ensued regarding the effects of testing, separating and classifying children, invoking additional academic pressure and the effects of social implications.

"It's okay to have competition in sports, music and the arts. But if a child is talented in math, it's not okay to go to a class with other children talented in the same subject?" Bertil Östberg, a state secretary at the education ministry, tells The Local.

"Why should they go to a normal class they find boring when we can provide a more fruitful way of learning - one that shows them that they can really do something they like."

The idea of elite, or advanced, classes has been under the nation's microscope for almost a decade, sparking a highly charged political, sociological and educational debate that swept the country.

As far back as 2002, the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) leader Jan Björklund, then vice mayor for Stockholm schools, pushed to identify top performing students through standardized testing.

The Education Act, one of the most extensive laws in the nation, put the brakes on his efforts with its intensive approach to equal education for all.

Now with Björklund at the helm of the education ministry, a revised Education Act is set to come into force in July 2011, that, among other things, paves the way for elite classes and admission testing at the junior high school level.

“We have not been allowed to test for subjects before and certainly not at this grade level,” says Helena Karis, the Director of Education for both preschools and compulsory schools with the National Agency for Education (Skolverket).

According to its official intention, the classes “shall give special deepening and widening” knowledge for young people with “excellent subject knowledge.”

The young students who apply for the specialised courses will undergo a series of tests and exams, a highly controversial method of selection that has been bashed about through a media debate.

“If a student plays a guitar or violin, or dances ballet, they have to test for it. It's the same. Every child should develop after their possibilities and the tests help identify which students can engage in the subjects,” says Metta Fjelkner, President of the National Union of Teachers in Sweden (Lärarnas Riksförbund).

The idea is that testing helps weed out students who do not possess the ability to perform at high levels but might be forced into applying due to pressure from their parents.

It also guarantees entrance to the advanced courses strictly based on ability, not economic privilege.

As such, schools will develop and administer their own admissions tests and maintain complete autonomy over the student selection process.

Up until now, students through the seventh grade have had very limited choices related to their education due to a concentrated effort to streamline education.

For example, advanced mathematics courses are only available during the spring term of the seventh grade with the hopes of raising the achievement of those who come from families with lower educational attainment.

The National Agency for Education will decide which independent schools and municipalities will begin to offer elite classes, with a maximum of ten schools and 30 students, for the planned 2012 launch.

Schools wishing to participate must apply to the education agency.

“The schools will be spread geographically and within two years we aim to have as many as 30 schools across the nation offering the elite classes,” says Karis.

The limited number of schools offering such programmes gives rise to another thorny issue related to the accessibility of the courses and the subsequent social implications.

“There is a lot of discussion about social responsibility when a student and their family move to a new community just so the child may attend advanced courses,” says Karis, who concedes that there is no guarantee that the same community will also offer the elite education programme at the upper secondary level.

But Östberg at the education ministry doesn't think it's an issue.

"There are very few families I think that will move because of this (programme)," he says.

On the other hand, the elite courses will only be offered in schools located in Sweden's main cities.

Talented children who live in the countryside will not have access to the advanced classes until the 'gymnasiet' level and will thus attend 'ordinary' compulsory schools.

"If the next Zlatan of mathematics lives in the country, we will miss them. They will have to wait until they are 16- or 17-years-old," Fjelkner says.

In addition, the selected schools will only be permitted to offer elite courses in either mathematics and natural sciences or social studies and languages.

It then becomes a matter of luck – a talented child must not only live in or near a community that offers advanced education courses, but that community must also offer the track of particular interest or skill.

In addition, critics argue that it is wrong to introduce a ‘sorting system' at such a young age and at a time when Swedish schools face growing tensions related to segregation and declining academic performance.

“This initiative risks creating a growing gap and reducing knowledge achievements even further,” Mikael Damberg, the Social Democrat's education policy spokesperson, said to the national newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.

The notion of elite classes also may threaten the foothold that the ethos of the "Jante Law" has on the Swedish education system.

At its most basic level, Jante law (Jantelagen) values progress of the collective over accomplishment of the individual, often translating into an unwritten code of conduct prevalent in Sweden that presents an overarching negative attitude toward individuality and success.

Björklund has blamed the previous Social Democratic government for perpetuating this behaviour within the educational system.

"We have had a Social Democratic Jante Law casting a shadow for decades over initiatives such as this within Swedish schools policy. It is the Jante Law that we want to leave behind us," the Minister has said.

And while the National Agency for Education is not meant to have opinions, only supply research and administer programs, Karis agrees that it is an important decision for the future of the education system.

“Regardless, this is a step forward. We are beginning to focus on all kids at all levels of their knowledge – all children should be challenged in their development whatever their levels of skill and knowledge,” Karis says.

The Teachers' Union also supports the initiative.

"We think it's worth trying. We'll see what becomes of it," Fjelkner says.

The selected compulsory schools that will offer elite education will be announced later in the year.

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