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Parenting in Sweden: How to choose and apply to the right school

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Parenting in Sweden: How to choose and apply to the right school
Follow The Local's guide to understand the Swedish school system and choose and apply for the best school for your child. Photo: Ann-Sofi Rosenkvist/imagebank.sweden.se
07:59 CET+01:00
Whether your children were born in Sweden or have moved over during their school career, choosing which school to send them to is one of the biggest decisions expat parents face. Here are the things you need to know and the decisions you need to make.

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The Swedish school system

Firstly, it helps to understand just how the education system works in Sweden. After your child turns one, they will be able to attend preschool ('förskola', also known colloquially as 'dagis'), which is heavily subsidized by the state, but not obligatory. Between the ages of six and 16, school is compulsory (and free) for all children in Sweden, and is split into several different stages. 

Starting in the autumn of the year your child turns six, there's the compulsory one-year preschool class (förskoleklass), before the 'grundskola' (primary or junior school) proper starts the following year. This provides a useful bridge between the learning methods of preschool and primary school.


Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

After that, the grundskola is split into 'lågstadiet' (lower studies, years 1–3, starting in the autumn of the year your child has their seventh birthday), 'mellanstadiet' (middle studies, years 4–6), and 'högstadiet' (higher studies, years 7–9).

After that comes the three-year high school or 'gymnasieskola' which is not compulsory but attended by most Swedish teenagers (who generally start the year they turn 16). Here, studies are aimed at either preparing children for university or vocational education. There are 18 different programmes to choose from (six aimed at higher educational and 12 vocational), as well as five 'introductory programmes' for students whose grades weren't high enough to take one of the other 18. After the introductory programme, they can move on to one of the 18 national programmes.

Many schools might offer teaching for grades 1-9, while others may finish earlier or might offer both grundskola and gymnasieskola teaching. This might be an important factor for parents whose children are likely to stay in Sweden for their entire school career.

As well as being split into these chronological stages, the school system can also be divided into different kinds of schools.


A first-grade class. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer /TT

Many schools are run by the local municipality, and these are all free to attend and follow the Swedish curriculum. There are also independent schools and private schools, which are two distinct categories.

Independent schools, also known as 'charter schools' or 'friskolor', can apply for funding known as 'skolpeng' (literally 'school money') from Skolverket (the Swedish National Agency for Education), if they have received official approval from the agency and agree to follow government guidelines on education. Schools that receive this funding, including many bilingual and international schools, are free to attend. It's also helpful to know that these schools aren't allowed to charge for textbooks or school trips.

Alternatively, there's also a small number of fee-paying private schools you can choose to send your child to if you prefer, though there are far fewer than in most other countries. These are not bound to the Swedish curriculum or school syllabus, and may follow the English National Curriculum or another school system.

Children with learning disabilities or other special needs have the same right to education as any other child in Sweden, and there are schools dedicated to children with hearing impairments and with learning disabilities, for example, where they will receive extra support.


Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

International or Swedish school?

Unlike in many countries, several of Sweden's international and English-speaking schools are completely free to attend, because they fall into the category of independent charter schools.

The International English School is one of the biggest, with schools in locations all around the country, from Umeå in the north to Lund in the south.

For families with a native language other than English, there are fewer options, but depending on where you're located, you may be able to find schooling in that language. Sweden (primarily Stockholm) is home to French, Finnish, German, Greek, Spanish and Dutch schools.

But if it's not possible or practical for your child to attend school in your native language, parents should also be aware that 'mother-tongue tuition' is often available to students who speak a language other than Swedish or English at home. Children in this category are in many cases entitled to additional lessons in their mother tongue, and to teaching in Swedish as a second language.


Photo: Hasse Holmberg/TT

One of the first decisions to make therefore is whether to look for an international or Swedish school.

Among Sweden's international schools, some teach the Swedish curriculum and others the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme, with some of the larger schools offering a choice between the two. A list of Swedish schools offering the International Baccalaureate programme can be found here.

One key factor is how long you plan for your family to stay in Sweden. If the move is temporary, for example if you've been posted abroad on a specific contract, an international school might offer your children the best possibility for continuity in their schooling. 

However, because these schools tend to be focussed on meeting the needs of children only in Sweden for a few years, they might not be as well-suited to children likely to spend their whole childhood in Sweden.


Photo: Tomas Oneborg/SvD/SCANPIX

If the move is long-term or permanent, and particularly if one of the child's parents is Swedish, it may make more sense for them to attend a Swedish school. Many schools are described as bilingual, but it's worth speaking to staff at the school and, if possible, parents of students there to find out exactly how much teaching is offered in each language (some schools offer all classes in English, while others offer half in English and half in Swedish or another combination) and what level students typically reach by the time they leave the school. 

Geography will be another factor to consider, since many of Sweden's international schools are based in the country's major cities. If you live outside these areas, your choice will be limited, although there are international schools in some smaller cities, including Gränna in Småland, home to a private (fee-paying) international boarding school, and Helsingborg, which has a municipality-funded international school.

How to choose

After choosing whether you want your children to go to an international or Swedish school, you'll face another set of decisions, some specific to Sweden and others more general. 

You may want your children to be able to walk or cycle to school, or to attend a school close to your workplace. It's possible to find the addresses and maps of your local municipality-run schools on the municipality or Skolverket website.


Photo: Ann-Sofi Rosenkvist/imagebank.sweden.se

If you're interested in factors such as student-teacher ratios and average grades, you can check the Välja skola website, run by Skolverket, which allows you to compare different schools using several criteria. The website is only available in Swedish, but by using a browser extension to translate you should be able to understand most of the information. It's also possible to compare information about schools on the website of the Swedish Schools Inspectorate.

And of course you can arrange to visit local schools that have piqued your interest in order to ask further questions and get a feel for the atmosphere at the school. There you can also ask how many international students there are at the school and what provisions are made for non-native Swedish speakers, if that's important to you, as well as any other questions about facilities, grading, parent-teacher communication and so on.

How to apply

It's possible to apply to a school in your municipality or a neighbouring one, by submitting an application to the municipality. Applications for the school year in autumn take place in late January-early February, and parents should receive a decision in April. Schools which receive public funding have to have open applications, however if a school is oversubscribed, priority will be given to children who live closest to the school or have a sibling already enrolled at the school.

If you arrive in Sweden after the application period, or are applying to an independent school, you should contact them directly to find out how to apply. Many of the popular international schools have long waiting lists, so it's a good idea to sign your child up as soon as possible if you have a strong preference. This is usually possible as long as your child has a Swedish personal number and you are either already in Sweden or have fixed plans to move.

If your child is starting at a Swedish school mid-way through their school career, the school will decide which class they start in, usually within their first two months at school. New pupils may be given extra lessons in Swedish alongside their other classes in order to help them catch up with other pupils and ease the transition.

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