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EDUCATION

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

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.

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

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.

For members

READER INSIGHTS

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.” 

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“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. 

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