What the Pisa rankings actually tell us about Swedish schools

The Local asked the experts what we can take from the improving performance of Swedish schools in international rankings.

What the Pisa rankings actually tell us about Swedish schools
The Local asked experts to pick Sweden's performance in the latest Pisa rankings apart. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

1. The good news

According to the experts, the most noteworthy thing to emerge from today’s rankings is that Sweden has reversed a negative trend in its schools that had been ongoing for over a decade and culminated in a below OECD-average performance in the Pisa rankings four years ago. 

“The one thing that really stands out is that a negative trend in Swedish results has been broken. They had been declining since we started measuring in 2000, but now we’ve seen robust improvements. The results are still not as good as they were 15 years ago, but they’re getting better,” OECD analyst for education and skills Tue Halgreen told The Local.

“They’re clearly a substantial improvement, certainly on 2012, though we’re not back to where we were around 2000,” Stockholm University’s mathematics and science education professor Paul Andrews agreed.

“There’s an increase of 16 points in mathematics, a 17 point increase in language, and nine point increase in science. So Sweden is now occupying an average position internationally. That’s a big improvement,” he emphasized.

2. The bad news

The latest rankings did not come without cause for concern however. The gap between the highest and lowest performing students has increased and is now above the OECD average, and the gap between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students has also increased. That’s a worry, Stockholm University’s Professor Andrews pointed out:

“The overall average performance has risen, but the achievement gap across the Swedish population has grown. In the past, Sweden managed to maintain a fairly small achievement gap, so it’s some concern.”

“One obvious cause is a higher proportion of second language learners in Sweden compared to other countries, to do with the Swedish tradition of humanitarian responses to world crises. That’s not an issue solved overnight, and it should dissipate over the coming years, but in the short term money needs to be invested to support second language learners,” he expanded.

The OECD’s Halgreen doesn’t think that immigration tells the full story about the growing divide in Swedish education however:

“The share of immigrant students is growing obviously and we do see a performance gap, but if we compare Sweden with other countries we can’t say that it’s Sweden’s share of immigrant students in the school system compared to others which explains why some schools are doing better or worse. We’re still talking about a minor proportion of students, even in Sweden.”

“It’s also about the home background students have. We see that for students with less resources at home in terms of parents who help with their homework, the gap between them and other students is increasing. In many of the highest performing countries they don’t just have good results overall, but also fairly equitable school systems,” he observed.

3. Neighbours do better

The latest ranking shows that Sweden lags behind some of its nearest neighbours in several categories. Its 493 points in science were less than Norway (498), Denmark (502) and Finland (531). In reading, Sweden’s 500 points were less than Norway (513) and Finland (526), and in mathematics too, 494 points for the Swedes were less than Norway (502), and Denmark and Finland (511 points).

Halgreen feels that Sweden could learn much from Finland in particular.

“If you compare Sweden with Denmark and Norway there are some differences, but the real difference is with Finland,” he explained.

“What does Finland do that others don’t? One thing that stands out is that they’re able to recruit the best into teaching. It’s very attractive to become a teacher there compared to many other countries, including the Nordics.”

“They also target their resources at schools and students who are struggling, as opposed to Sweden, where if we ask principals whether they lack resources, we see that the scools in less advantaged areas are more likely to say they don’t have resources than those in richer areas,” he added.

“In Finland, we just don’t see that gap. They’re simply better at distributing their resources to schools that need them.”

4. Are Sweden's strengths overlooked?

Stockholm University’s Andrews thinks that one of the biggest strengths of Sweden's education system, its focus on innovation, is not being taken into account, and could even be a source of shaky performances in the Pisa ranking.

“The Swedish curriculum places a greater emphasis on students taking responsibility for their own learning, that’s part of what it is to be Swedish and the Swedish democratic tradition, which is really important and something to be cherished,” he said.

“Students are more aware than their peers in other countries of when things matter to them individually and when they don’t. They have been turned into reflective human beings who make informed decisions about their own actions. The World Economic Forum publishes its global competitiveness index every year: one component is creativity and innovation, and Sweden is up there in the top two or three. Entrepreneurship is an integrated part of upper secondary school now. I don’t think Pisa tells us anything that’s remotely useful in that regard.”

The OECD’s Halgreen disagreed however, arguing that Pisa testing also takes into account practical uses of skills.

“We do measure the extent to which students can make informed choices based on their knowledge and competence within different subjects. The tasks are very much focused not only on knowledge, but whether you can use what you know in different real life contexts,” he said.

“And when we look at Swedish results in science for example, we included different types of tasks. Some focused more on understanding how science works, then others are based on learning specifically about a topic. We actually see Swedish students doing better on the content knowledge tasks than the practical application, so I’m not sure. It looks like if we had more of the content knowledge tasks Sweden might actually do even better. I’m not sure I buy that one.”

5. Does Pisa even matter?

The high media coverage of today’s results in Sweden – not to mention comments made by the country’s education minister Gustav Fridolin to The Local earlier this year – shows just how seriously Sweden takes the ranking and performing well in it, but should that be the case?

Stockholm University’s Andrews doesn’t think so, and believes resources could be better used.

“The success of Pisa is entirely down to the OECD being very good at marketing what it does,” he argued.

“For one of the world’s most democratic countries to have its curriculum dictated in some sense by an unelected body sitting in Paris is a futile, expensive activity, and the money could be better used elsewhere, like for example supporting second language learners of Swedish. Many kids coming to Sweden are not uneducated or stupid, they know a lot of stuff, but their Swedish is insufficient.”

The OECD’s Halgreen countered however that comparing education systems internationally is an important tool in helping countries to improve standards.

“It’s important to measure learning outcomes in a global context, you shouldn’t just follow developments in the Swedish result, but also look at what other school systems can do,” he insisted.

“That’s perhaps equally important, that Sweden can see what other systems are doing better. An important lesson from other school systems that policy makers should note is that it’s not a trade-off between wanting to be at the top and focusing on giving everyone the same opportunities for example. It’s actually the countries who focus most on the latter who tend to top the rankings,” he concluded.

For members


What schools do foreigners in Sweden send their children to and are they happy?

Most foreign parents in Sweden told The Local's survey they take advantage of the country's school choice system and send their children to international schools, or to private or non-profit free schools. Here's what they think of the quality of teaching.

What schools do foreigners in Sweden send their children to and are they happy?

Our survey was not scientific, but out of the 157 people who responded before we closed it, 65 (41 percent) sent their child or children to a standard municipally-run school which did not offer an international programme as part of their teaching. More than a third (34 percent) sent their child to an international school offering the International Baccalaureate diploma (which could be municipal, private, or non-profit).

Almost a quarter (39 respondents, 24.4 percent) sent their children to a profit-making free school. And almost a fifth (29 respondents, 18 percent) sent their child or children to a free school run by a non-profit organisation.

The survey was carried out as part of The Local’s investigation into schools in Sweden. We’ve previously published interviews with foreign teachers at the IES (Internationella Engelska Skolan, International English School) free school chain herehere, and here, and are now looking into other schools as well.

Since the “free school reform” in 1992, private and non-profit companies have been able to run schools in Sweden, with the state paying them for each pupil educated. 

The system has come under growing criticism over the past ten years.

This has partly been due to a decline in the performance of Swedish pupils compared to those of other countries in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The system of school choice has been blamed for increasing segregation. 

In the run-up to September’s election, schools are likely to be one of the big issues. 

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson looks set to campaign on a pledge to ban free schools – dismissed as marknadsskolan, “schools driven by market forces” – from siphoning off profits. 

“The school system we have in Sweden today, which is unique in the world and no other country has chosen to imitate, is a system which essentially drives increased segregation,” she said in an interview in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper at the end of last month. 

“Researchers are pretty much unanimous about that. Pupils with the worst prospects are collected together in one school and those with better prospects in another.”  

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of the centre-left Social Democrat party. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Swedish schools too slow 

The most common complaint from parents who answered the survey was that the pace of education at municipality-run schools was too slow, and the level of academic demands placed on their children too low. 

“[It’s] very slow-paced,” complained a US mother living in Uppsala. [The] education is several years behind grade level in the US.” 

Mangla Sekhri, an Indian mother and IT director based in Stockholm, said she had pulled her children out of the local municipality school after a year and moved them to a school run by the IES chain.

“[I] just couldn’t continue due to [the] slow pace there. It was very slow, but now at IES things are much better-paced.” 


“The only thing which bothers me is lower expectations on the kids, compared to Poland where we come from,” said a Polish respondent. 

“She’s ahead of the other children because she’d already finished two years of school in Guernsey. They don’t give her learning materials of a high enough level without us asking them to,” complained a father from the British Isles. 

Better integration at municipal schools 

For those who had chosen to send their children to a standard, municipality-run school, the big attraction was better integration, both in Sweden and in their local neighbourhood. 

“Their peers and friends at the school are generally their neighbours as well, [so it’s] easy to hang out with school friends,” said an American living on Sweden’s northwest coast, whose four children all went through the local municipal school. 

“My now eight-year-old daughter learned Swedish within months. One year on, she’s completely fluent. She has also made many Swedish friends and has playdates several days a week,” said a British father living in Gävle. 

“If you are an immigrant and planning to settle down in Sweden then municipal schools are good options for your child to learn Swedish quickly,” agreed a dad from Bangladesh, living in Malmö. 

More flexibility and better discipline at private schools

Many of those who had chosen to send their children to a privately-run free school seemed to prize the additional flexibility and better discipline they offered. 

“My child was already three years ahead academically and was very bored in lessons (had already learned everything in maths and science in the UK), so IES let him attend higher years group classes in these subjects,” reported an English respondent living in the middle of Sweden. 

“Free schools have stricter discipline and they focus more on studies,” said a mother from Sri Lanka whose child went to a school run by the Kunskapskolan chain. 

“I like the discipline and all the support that teachers give to the students,” said a mother whose child goes to a school run by IES. 

A parent whose child went to a school run by the AcadeMedia chain, said they were drawn by the additional subjects, such as music and theatre, on offer. 

Better possibilities to study internationally and move schools if posted elsewhere

Those who chose to send their children to schools running the International Baccalaureate programme did so either because they liked the programme’s more demanding curriculum or because they were only on a short or medium-term posting to Sweden and wanted to make it easier for their children to shift their education to a new country. 

One parent, whose child went to the British International School of Stockholm, cited the “ease of transferring to a new school when moving to a new country”, and “exposure to different cultures and points of view” as advantages. 

“I love the IB. It’s one of the best but also most challenging educational systems in the world and this is widely recognised,” said one parent, whose child goes to the international school run by the Bladins Foundation in Malmö.

“Here in Malmö, the big risk is that there are no options for the final years outside the one school. If your child doesn’t achieve the academic standard required, then you are screwed.” 

Who was happiest with their choice of school? 

There was little variation in parent satisfaction between those who sent their children to a municipal, private or international school. 

The parents who sent their children to standard municipal schools rated their school on average at 7.7 out of 10. Those who sent their children to a privately run free school rated their school at 8.2, while those who sent their children to a school run by a non-profit organisation rated their children’s school the highest at 8.6. 

Those whose children went to a school running the International Baccalaureate programme rated the school on average at 8.3. 

There was slightly more variation between types of schools when parents broke down their ratings, with standard municipal schools falling further behind on the level of discipline parents perceived at their children’s schools, and also on the quality of extra-curricular activities.

  Overall Teaching Happiness of child Discipline Extra-curricular
Standard municipal 7.7 7.4 8.3 7.1 6.6
For-profit 8.2 8 8.5 7.9 7.4
Non-profit 8.6 8.6 9 8.5 7.1
International school 8.25 8.2 8.8 8 7.3

Which individual schools/chains came out tops? 

The schools which won the highest approval rating tended to be the international schools run by non-profit foundations, such as British International School Stockholm, Bladins International in Malmö, The English School Gothenburg, Sigtunaskolan, and Stockholm International School (although note that there were only one to three respondents for each of these schools). 

When it came to the for-profit free school chains, there was more variation, with some parents loving their children’s schools and others disappointed. 

Four parents sending their children to the IES chain gave the school ten out of ten, but two IES parents gave their school four or five out of ten. It was a similar story with the Kunskapskolan chain, where one parent gave an eight, another a four.

“The best thing about my child’s school is how respectful the children are towards each other,” send one parent who sent her child to an IES school. “There is a culture of the children being kind and supportive of each other. The teachers have all been amazing, and it’s been really interesting for my child to meet teachers from a huge variety of different countries.” 

Several IES parents also praised how well organised their child’s school was, with high standards of cleanliness and discipline. 

“I chose IES because the school inculcates the right values that I would like my children to have – discipline, respect for teachers, diligence in studying, academic excellence,” one wrote. 

“The staff seem genuinely interested in our concerns. The kids enjoy being there and enjoy learning,” wrote another. 

On the negative side, one noted that “teachers are not paid as well as [at] public schools”, another that “teachers are very often changing”, and another that “no proper curriculum [had been] followed”. 

In general, the most dissatisfied parents had children at municipal schools, perhaps because they were less likely to have actively chosen them. Ten respondents gave their municipality-run school a four or five overall. 

“[There is] nothing to do in their free time and an extremely low level of teaching,” complained one parent, while another complained of “incompetent staff with a lack of social-emotional intelligence”, and another of “extremely large classes”. 

“I’m not entirely sure of the quality of the education,” wrote one Irish parent. “At least one of the teachers seems to think the Republic of Ireland is part of the UK.” 

A particular complaint about municipal schools was the way teachers seemed unwilling to use imaginative and engaging teaching methods. “Some teachers are not able to engage the class with interesting teaching methods,” complained an Australian father. 

Given the level of variation in answers to The Local’s questionnaire between both the best and worst municipality-run schools and the best and worst schools run by the free school chains, it is clearly important to talk to local parents about which school in your area of Sweden seems best.