Every autumn, Sweden's kids get a mid-term holiday from school commonly known as the ‘autumn break' (höstlov), but this year that has changed. In an effort to convince more Swedes to read, the Swedish government has now dubbed the holiday the ‘reading break' (läslov), directing five million kronor ($562,000) to initiatives designed to inspire reading over the holiday.
But can something as simple as a name change really help save Sweden's faltering education system? The Local spoke to Sweden's education minister Gustav Fridolin to hear his argument.
Explain for our international readers why the autumn break been changed to the reading break, and what it is hoped that will achieve?
We have a school break in the spring commonly known as ‘sports break', now we're renaming the autumn break from just ‘autumn break' to ‘reading break'. The reason for that is to underline the importance of kids reading and the importance of all adults around the kids engaging in their reading.
So what we're working for is more parents to read for their kids, soccer clubs to take their teams to libraries, to go out and meet with families who most often aren't visiting them. It's said that a kid needs five thousand hours to go from slowly pronouncing words to actually reading with flow. And all those five thousand hours could never fit into the school schedule.
We need to read more in school, but we also need to have more parents reading for their kids, and we also need more kids regardless of how many books they have on their shelves back home to have the opportunity to explore reading more.
The impression one often gets as a foreigner living here is that Swedish kids and Swedes in general are still big readers, but are there signs that the numbers are going down?
Sweden has in a very short term gone from one of the OECD countries with the highest rate of good literacy among 15-year-olds to today one of the countries in the bottom of the OECD. If we look at the Pisa tests Sweden performed very well in literacy in 2003, but in the last 2013 tests we were among the four or five countries in the OECD that performed worst. The work to change that is of course to do in school, but it is also work for every kid, every parent, and all other adults around the kids.
Can a name change for a holiday really inspire kids to read more? Photo: Vilhelm Stokstad/TT
The government has launched a new reading delegation with famous faces like former Sweden and Iceland coach Lars Lagerbäck on it, who's also a former teacher. Is it important to get recognizable people from outside of politics on board with these kind of initiatives to try and convince kids and adults to take part?
Absolutely. It's not just him as a prominent figure, it's the movement he represents. There are so many adults around our kids. If we can get all of them, including the soccer coaches to engage in reading, more kids regardless of whether their parents read to them or not will have the possibility to explore reading. Of course, if soccer teams take the kids to the library that will of course mean the most to the kid who has never been there before.
A couple of decades ago Swedish education had a very strong image internationally, but we have seen that Sweden is slipping down the Pisa test rankings in recent years. Is there a clear explanation for why that is happening?
In the early 90s a lot of reforms were pushed through the Swedish education system, and combined they created what the OECD researchers describe as ‘an education system that has lost its soul'. Now, we're rebuilding the idea that no kid should ever be left behind both within schools and outside of scools.
The goal is for that every single kid in school should get the education they need to make their dreams come true. Sweden used to have one of the most equal school systems in the world where your background wasn't reflected in your grades. And internationally we're still doing quite good in equality, but we're losing ground and that's what we want to take back.
What more can be done to change that and improve the standard of education in Sweden again? And what is being done?
We're investing very heavily in the school system. Hiring more teachers, more staff to help, more special needs teachers. In the last two years we've hired more than 13,000 new teachers and other teaching staff within the school system.
We're also changing the law to make sure that those special methods you can use with a kid that has a problem with reading or maths should be brought in already by pre-school, first, second or third years within school. Today it takes too long for that to happen, even though a teacher often identifies the need very early on.
Fridolin and culture minister Alice Bah Kuhnke at the Gothenburg Book Fair in September. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT
What about at University level? Are the problems in preliminary education reflected at higher education? Is there a concern there?
Sweden is still one of the countries that can be very proud of its higher education. Having several universities in the top of the world, being a rather small country. At the same time having a very broad sense of higher education. You have universities all over the country.
But of course if the primary school and the secondary school isn't giving each kid what they need to go further, that will of course also impact universities and higher education. We really need to make these investments to actually change the situation for kids in schools.
Integration is a big challenge in Sweden at the moment as the country changes through immigration and the refugee crisis. How important is education to better integrating newcomers in Sweden?
Last year was of course exceptional for Swedish schools. 70,000 refugee kids came to Swedish schools, which is close to a yearly cohort of Swedish kids.
And the Swedish schools managed to welcome them all and give them a new start, at the same time actually raising the quality of education for the kids that were already here. So we can see that our last figures show that for kids who were here, we actually had better results in the ninth grade than the year before.
So we managed to take all those kids in, give them a new start and at the same time raise the quality for the kids that are already here.
What we're now working for is that these measures we're undertaking with refugee kids, such as more individualized education, more working to help kids struggling with language, those measures should also help Swedish born and other kids in the school that had those challenges before.
Because if we look at the kids that had challenges before, regardless of whether they were born in Sweden or elsewhere, what they need is of course more individualized education and more of the possibility to work with language development. When we spread this experience and knowledge within the school system that can of course be a lift for the whole school system, when rightly done.