Foreigners are entitled to free SFI lessons in the municipality where they are resident. Under Swedish law classes should start either three months of the date they register at a permanent address in Sweden, or for those who are part of Sweden's national plan to help refugees get established in the country, a month after they apply to a course.
But almost half of the municipalities that responded to the survey said they are failing to meet these deadlines, according to a new report produced by the National Agency for Education, Skolverket, on behalf of the education ministry.
A total of 111 municipalities told the report's authors they currently have a queues for SFI classes exceeding the stated target time. Around half of those said the waiting times were between one and four weeks. Five municipalities reported the longest waiting times, five to six months.
The number of people taking Swedish for immigrants classes has increased sharply in the past decade, from some 50,600 in 2005 to 138,000 in 2015, and is expected to continue to increase on the back of Sweden's record intake of refugees in the past couple of years.
According to Skolverket the number of people qualified to teach SFI has not grown at the same rate as the number of students. “The lack of teachers in SFI is significant and it is difficult to recruit,” explained Anna Westerholm, head of Skolverket's department for curriculum directives, in a statement.
“Many municipalities solve this with larger teaching groups and flexible teaching hours, that is daytime hours as well as evenings and weekends. But long-term measures are required to among other things increase the supply of teachers. Skolverket also needs to offer support to those municipalities that need it.”
Skolverket suggests a series of measures to plug the staff shortage, including increasing the number of distance courses for people who want to teach Swedish as a second language and offering more funding to municipalities or schools offering SFI classes. It also suggests closer cooperation between the national jobseekers' agency Arbetsförmedlingen and local authorities to help new arrivals integrate faster.
Sweden's minister for upper secondary school and adult education, Anna Ekström, told The Local that work is already under way to plug an overall teacher shortage in Sweden, including SFI teachers.
“I think it is a big problem, and it's many problems on top of each other,” she said. “The government requested this report because there is a concern of the supply of teachers in general, and [SFI students] is also a group that has grown in the past few years.”
“Learning the language is important to get a job in Sweden or to complement your degree and also just to be an active member of society. The longer you have to wait to learn the language the longer it takes you to get established in Sweden.”