Pressure is on – elite classes for younger students

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.

Pressure is on - elite classes for 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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Explained: What Sweden’s new curriculum will mean for your children

Sweden's government today approved a new school curriculum which will come into force next July. Here's what parents need to know about the plans.

Explained: What Sweden's new curriculum will mean for your children
Sweden's Education Minister Anna Ekström announcing the new curriculum on Friday. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

What is Sweden's school curriculum? 

In the Swedish school system, what is taught at primary and lower secondary school, grundskola, is governed by 'course plans', kursplaner, and 'teaching plans', läroplaner, while what is taught at upper secondary schools is governed by 'subject plans', ämnesplaner.

Why was there a need to change the curriculum?  

The curriculum currently in place is little changed from that brought in under the previous centre-right Alliance government in 2011.

That curriculum has been criticised by teachers, students and their parents for having confusing and complicated criteria for grading and guides for teaching that can be hard to interpret.

Imprecise and confusing curriculums and lessons plans make teachers' jobs more difficult and reduce the possibility of pupils to understand what they're supposed to learn,” Sweden's education minister Anna Ekström said at a press conference announcing the changes. 

She also said that both parents and teachers had long complained that the previous curriculum demanded and unrealistic level of analysis from pupils of an early age. 

“I know that there are many parents who have been astonished when they have seen what demands are made on the ability to analyse at low ages for children,” she said.

At the press conference, Ekström complained that the existing curriculum also failed to make clear enough differences between what knowledge was required in subjects at different levels, leading to repetition and a lack of clarity. 

She said that the previous curriculum also led to what she called stoffsträngsel, or 'contents congestion' – that it included so many details and requirements that it was impossible for teachers to get through in the hours provided. 

Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

So what's been changed? 

The new curriculum, announced in a press release on Friday, is more concise, with a greater emphasis on factual knowledge and understanding, and less emphasis on pupils' ability to research and analyse themselves.

Back in 2011, some educationalists felt that near-universal access to the internet had made factual knowledge less important than the ability to research and assess information.

Ekström said the new curriculum brought a renewed emphasis on factual knowledge and understanding.   

That knowledge is a good in and of itself is put forward much more clearly than it was the former curriculum,” she said at a press conference announcing the changes. “There is a clear focus from the government that it should be knowledge and understanding which is the focus of Swedish schools.” 

She said that the new curriculum was also clearer and more concise. 

“We have tried to concentrate the contents, take out the unnecessary examples — that’s something teachers can and do provide themselves,” she said. 

The requirement for students to carry out their own analysis will increase with age, while the knowledge requirements have been made less detailed and extensive, making them easier for teachers to use. 

In addition, the content will now differ more clearly between different year groups and courses. 

Who is responsible for changing the curriculum? 

The curriculum has been written by the Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket), but the change in focus was demanded under the January agreement struck between the Social Democrat, Green, Centre and Liberal parties

This stated that “course and teaching plans should be revised to strengthen the emphasis on knowledge and factual knowledge, and to encourage diligence and ambition”. 

The decision to approve Skolverket's final proposal, which was submitted in December, was made by Sweden's two-party red-green coalition together with the Centre and Liberal parties. 

Photo: Lars Pehrson/SvD/TT

What was the criticism last year about? 

When Skolverket submitted its first proposal last autumn it was sharply criticised for the decision to leave out ancient history, the bible, the psalms and the national anthem. 

There was also concern that the curriculum required pre-teens to do “advanced literary analysis”. 

Both of these criticisms have been met in the final curriculum agreed between the four parties, with ancient history and the bible back in and the level of required literary criticism scaled back. 

Requirements for grades clearer and less specific 

The grading system itself will not be changed under the proposals, but Skolverket hopes that the grading process will become more fair and accurate. Swedish grades are awarded from A-F, with A the highest grade and A-E all counted as 'pass' grades.
These grades are awarded at the end of each school term (only in the subjects the student was taught in that term, and during högstadiet only at the end of a course), starting with the autumn term of Grade 6. 
The agency plans to change so-called 'knowledge requirements' (kunskapskraven). These are the things which students are required to know in order to receive a certain grade, and Skolverket said the current system led to students getting very low grades just because certain details of the knowledge requirements weren't met.
For example, rather than requiring students to show how the “social, media, judicial, economic and political structures in society” are structured and how they function (as in the current syllabus for social studies), they will be required to show “knowledge of conditions and structures in society” and give examples of “connections within and between different social structures”.
So in the new proposals, knowledge requirements are “less extensive, contain fewer details and are formulated in a simpler way”, Skolverket said.
This is intended to ensure students receive grades that accurately reflect their understanding of a subject, and that teachers can focus less on having to teach specific details in order to reach a grade.
What happens now? 
Skolverket will now look at the amount of hours assigned to each subject and analyse how this needs to be changed to allow teachers to teach the new curriculum, with history, in particular, likely to require more hours than given to it at present. 
Rather than increase the total number of hours of tuition, hours are likely to be trimmed from other subjects to make way for topics like ancient history and the bible. 
Skolverket has been asked to provide the new teaching timetable, with the hours assigned to each subject by March. 
The new curriculum is then set to come into force at the start of next July, with pupils beginning to be taught under it the following August.