Performance gap between immigrant pupils and native Swedes has grown: report

The performance gap between pupils born in Sweden and those born abroad has increased sharply as a consequence of demographics shifts according to a new report into the factors behind immigrant pupils performing worse than native Swedes.

Performance gap between immigrant pupils and native Swedes has grown: report
File photo of Swedish primary school grades. Jessica Gow/TT

The report by the Swedish Ministry of Finance's Expert Group on Public Economics (ESO) studied data covering all pupils who completed primary school in Sweden during the period between 1988 and 2014. Results showed significant differences in performance between immigrant and native pupils: while just over 90 percent of all pupils born in Sweden qualify for upper secondary school, for foreign-born pupils the figure drops to 65 percent.

And the difference increased sharply in 2008, “explained by a shift in the demographic composition of foreign pupils in terms of region of birth and age at arrival”.

ANALYSIS: How is Sweden tackling its integration challenge?

Pupils who moved to Sweden after the typical school starting age of seven, as well as those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds perform particularly poorly according to the study.

Those born in Africa and unaccompanied refugee children have a “significantly higher risk” of failing school. That can be linked to the average age at the time of immigration being higher for those groups compared to other immigrant pupils, meaning they have less time in their new country before they need to complete school.

READ ALSO: Lottery system for Swedish school enrolment met with criticism

With a record number of refugee children coming to Sweden in recent years, and an upper secondary school education key to entering the labour market in the country, the current situation could be problematic for integration efforts in the future, researchers warned.

“With many more foreign born students the pressure on society's capacity to integrate increases. Measures need to be broad, targeting students in school but also their parents in order to reduce exclusion,” Hans Grönqvist, one of the researchers involved in the report said in a statement.

One of the key findings in the study is that socio-economic status of parents is strongly linked to the size of the performance gap, as is the importance of neighbourhood of residence.

Almost the entire gap disappears if foreign born and native pupils have the same socio-economic background and live in the same neighbourhoods, it observed:

“In particular the analysis shows that the gap decreases when we compare the achievements of immigrant and native students who attend the same schools”.

“Broad societal efforts to improve the socio-economic status among immigrants could be a way to improve the school achievement of their children,” the researchers concluded. 

READ ALSO: Family background key to school performance, Swedish study shows

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OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend showed how Sweden’s third party, the far-right Sweden Democrats, has shaped Swedish politics since the last elections four years ago, argues David Crouch

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

In the build-up to the 2018 elections, the world’s media descended on Stockholm, expecting a breakthrough by the Sweden Democrats (SD) who had been polling as high as 25 percent. In the end, SD took third place with around 18 percent of the vote.

Four years later, SD are hovering at around the same level in the polls. However, Swedish politics has been utterly transformed, as the other main parties have moved onto political terrain previously occupied by SD.

This would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. When they first entered parliament, SD were treated as political pariahs, a racist party, held at arm’s length by the other parties who refused to cooperate with them in any way.

Attempts to bring the SD into the mainstream of Swedish politics fell flat. The leader of the centre-right Moderates lost her job after suggesting it was “time to stop demonising” the SD. Her replacement, Ulf Kristersson, said he would neither negotiate nor govern with them. After the elections, two smaller centre-right parties – the Centre and the Liberals – agreed to prop up the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to prevent the SD gaining any influence in parliament.

It was clear, however, that the only chance for the centre-right to govern would be with SD support. After all, in Finland and Norway right-wing populist parties had entered government with the centre right. And in Denmark, the centre-right had governed with populist support. If it worked there, why not in Sweden?

In early 2019, the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson famously had meatballs for lunch with Ebba Busch, the leader of the tiny Christian Democrats, who acted as a bridge-builder. A few months later, Kristersson met the SD leader for the first time in his Stockholm office. By early 2021 the cordon sanitaire dividing the parties had been truly dismantled, and in the autumn the three parties presented a joint budget.

Meanwhile, the Moderates stepped up their rhetoric against immigration and crime. But perhaps the influence has worked both ways? Maybe the far-right have toned down their policies, compromising with the centre so the parties can work together?

On the contrary, Åkesson and other leading SD figures have stoked up the fire and brimstone in their anti-immigrant message. For the SD, the problem is dark-skinned immigrants from Muslim countries whose values conflict with Sweden’s and who should therefore be deported.

The response among the Moderates – and also the governing Social Democrats – has been a deafening silence.

After the Easter riots in six Swedish cities, the Social Democrat government proposed a package of coercive measures to help the police and social services crackdown on criminals.

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend brought this out very clearly. More than that, it showed how the Sweden Democrats have shaped Swedish politics since the country last voted four years ago.

In the debate on Sunday, prime minister Magdalena Andersson talked about being tough on crime and boasted that Sweden now has one of the strictest immigration regimes in Europe.

It was left to the Green Party (polling 4 percent) and the Centre Party (6 percent) to challenge the SD on immigration. They pointed out that the violent minority is tiny, and that tens of thousands of recent immigrants hold down jobs, obey the law and contribute to Swedish society.

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf listed some of the SD’s more extreme proposals, including demolition of high-immigration neighbourhoods, dawn raids on refugees, and collective punishment for crimes committed by a single family member. This was “pure racism”, Lööf said – where were the “red lines”, beyond which the centre-right would turn against the SD?

All the parties agree that segregation along ethnic lines has gone too far in Sweden, that integration efforts have failed and that something must be done. But there is a paucity of bold ideas that could really make a difference.

Immigration will once more be a battleground at the elections in September, with key politicians competing to be the toughest in dealing with unruly “foreigners”. Meanwhile, the underlying problems that have fuelled disaffection among people with immigrant backgrounds are unlikely to be addressed.

A few weeks ago, Swedish journalist Janne Josefsson spoke to Ahmed, one of the stone-throwing youngsters who shocked the country at Easter.

“We are second class citizens. You let us in, but then Sweden doesn’t care about us,” Ahmed told him. “We are trapped here. I have studied, but will never get a good job. At least once a week we are stopped by the police. In the end, you feel hunted, like a quarry. Do you understand?”

It seems that Swedish politicians don’t really want to.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.


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