Sweden recovers in global school rankings

Sweden's schools have showed signs of recovery in the latest edition of the global Pisa education ranking, with results in mathematics, reading and science now at or above the OECD average for all three subjects.

Sweden recovers in global school rankings
The Pisa results provide encouraging signs for Sweden. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

READ ALSO: What Pisa rankings actually say about Swedish schools

The 2013 edition of the survey was a wake-up call for Sweden, which experienced the sharpest drop in results of any of the 32 countries studied over a ten-year span, pushing them below the OECD average.

But Tuesday’s release of the latest instalment of the ranking, covering the year 2015, brought encouraging news for the Nordic nation, as all three subjects showed marked improvements.

Pisa called Sweden’s ability to reduce its share of low performers in mathematics while at the same time raising excellence and increasing its number of top performers “particularly encouraging”.

It also highlighted that Sweden shows one of the highest levels of efficiency in education, producing strong results compared to the number of hours students spend being instructed or doing homework. Only five other school systems in the study had a better ratio of learning time to academic outcome.

“The Pisa result is a show of strength from Sweden’s teachers and students. Hard work has made the difference, that’s known in the classroom, and it has been proven now in the improving competence of those in the ninth grade, and better results across two different knowledge measurements,” Sweden's education minister Gustav Fridolin said in a statement.


The head of Sweden's National Agency for Education (Skolverket) also celebrated the news, with Mikael Halápi labelling the result a “shot in the arm” for the country's teachers, students and principles.

There were however still challenges for the Swedish school system which emerged from the study. The gap between the highest and lowest performing students has increased over the last decade and is now wider than the OECD average. The performance gap between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students has also increased meanwhile.

In addition, the performance gap between immigrant and non-immigrant students in science in Sweden is larger than the average across the OECD countries.

“Gaps are growing. Your upbringing now affects your results more in Sweden than in many other OECD countries. We will never accept that. It is what you do in school that will determine your future, not what home you grow up in. The Pisa result is a happy one, but it calls for policy. We will continue to prioritize more time for teachers, to cut out segregation and give students support in time. No one should be left behind,” Fridolin added.

READ ALSO: The Local interviews Sweden's education minister Gustav Fridolin

The study also suggests that Swedish public schools are more likely to produce better results than private alternatives in the country.

Though the share of 15-year-old students enrolled in Sweden's private schools more than doubled between 2006 and 2015, students in public schools showed better results than those in private schools after accounting for the socio-economic profile of the students and schools, Pisa noted.

Education agency head Halápi said the new Pisa results require detailed analysis, and tempered some of the celebrations with a reminder that Sweden is still short of its high-point in the rankings from 16 years ago.

“We don't have a full answer for what the improvement is grounded in today. That’s a task for us and the research community to analyze. At the same time we know what contributes to a good school. It’s to do with developing education, getting more people to become teachers and providing the right conditions for the school. We still have a bit to go until we reach the top results of the Pisa study done in 2000,” the Swedish National Agency for Education acting head said in a press statement.


IES chain blocked from opening four new schools

Sweden's Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES) chain has been denied permission to open four new schools in Gothenburg, Huddinge, Norrtälje, and Upplands-Bro, after the schools inspectorate said it had not provided pupil data.

IES chain blocked from opening four new schools

According to the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper, the Swedish Schools Inspectorate (Skolinspektionen) has denied permission to the chain to open a new planned new school in Norrtälje, north of Stockholm, even though the building that will house it is already half built. The inspectorate has also denied permission to three other schools which the chain had applied to start in 2023. 

In all four cases, the applications have been rejected because the school did not submit the required independent assessment for how many pupils the schools were likely to have. 

Jörgen Stenquist, IES’s deputy chief executive, said that IES has not in the past had to submit this data, as it has always been able to point to the queues of pupils seeking admissions to the school. 

“The fact that Engelska Skolan, as opposed to our competition, has never had the need to hire external companies to do a direct pupil survey is because we have had so many in line,” he told DN.

“In the past, it has been enough that we reported a large queue in the local area. But if the School Inspectorate wants us to conduct targeted surveys and ask parents directly if they want their children to start at our new schools, then maybe we have to start doing that.”


According to the newspaper, when the inspectorate had in the past asked for pupil predictions, the chain has refused, stating simply “we do not make student forecasts”, which the inspectorate has then accepted. 

However, in this year’s application round, when IES wrote: “We do not carry out traditional interest surveys as we simply have not had a need for this,” the inspectorate treated it as grounds to reject its applications. 

According to DN, other school chain have been complaining to the inspectorate that IES gets favourable treatment and was excused some requirements other chains have to fulfil. 

Liselotte Fredzell, from the inspectorate’s permitting unit, confirmed that the inspectorate was trying to be more even handed. 

“Yes, it is true that we are now striving for a more equal examination of applications. Things may have been getting too slack, and we needed to tighten up.”