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What's behind the rising inequality in Sweden's schools, and can it be fixed?

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What's behind the rising inequality in Sweden's schools, and can it be fixed?
The Local speaks to headteachers who managed to improve their students' prospects. Photo: Hossein Salmanzadeh/TT
07:59 CEST+02:00
In the latest article of The Local's Sweden in Focus series and as students across the country start a new academic year, we look at why the area you live in and the family you're born into affects your education more than ever in Sweden, and what's being done to tackle the problem.

This feature is part of The Local's Sweden in Focus series, taking an in-depth look at the issues that make this country tick. Click here to read more articles.

Each child in Sweden has the right to an equal education, the National Education Act states. But this is far from reality. The area where a child lives and the school they attend from the age of seven has an increasingly significant impact on their test results, the National Agency for Education (Skolverket) has warned.

The idea that a child should be able have any future they want, regardless of their postcode or family background, has always been a cornerstone of Swedish education. As far back as 1842, Sweden made compulsory schooling a key part of the social welfare system in an effort to reduce the impact of socioeconomic background on future success, and the proportion of GDP spent on education has been consistently high. 

But today, results vary between different schools and areas. "We have schools with a high concentration of children with disadvantaged backgrounds; schools with a high proportion of students who are newly-arrived, whose parents have a lower level of education. And when you have a very high concentration of students with these challenges, it becomes hard for the school to compensate for that," Peter Fredriksson, the head of Skolverket, tells The Local.


Peter Fredriksson. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

"It's not a new phenomenon. Residential segregation has always existed and that's led to schools with different student groups and different challenges," he adds. "But in recent years we've had an increase in the gaps between different groups in society, and this has been exacerbated through certain reforms. So developments in society generally and in the school system over recent decades have increased segregation – it's hard to affect the development of society, but we can and should look at how we build and organize schools so that we have more of a mix of groups of students."

Dramatic changes to the education system came during the 1990s. Sweden's first neoliberal government passed multiple reforms aimed at making schools more cost-effective, competitive, and efficient. Control shifted from the central government to the municipalities, while independently-run friskolor (charter schools) were allowed to receive public funding in return for following national education policy. In 1992, fria skolvalet (free choice of school) was introduced, allowing parents to freely choose the school their child attended and awarding funding based on the number of pupils enrolled at each institution.

Other countries watched these changes with interest. The UK introduced Sweden-inspired charter schools and Finland, whose schools now far outperform Sweden's, also took inspiration from its Nordic neighbour. In the early 2000s, Swedish students achieved high marks in the international education rankings TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA, with Swedish ten-year-olds the best of all participating countries in the 2001 PIRLS literacy study.

Since then, however, the results have slipped, with most international rankings showing a steady, long-term decline. The OECD described Sweden as having "lost its way" following the 2013 results in its PISA rankings, when Sweden experienced the sharpest drop in results of any country in the survey over a ten-year span. The latest results, released in 2016, showed a long awaited reversal to the trend, but Sweden remained only average in each subject area.

The TIMSS and PIRLS studies, run by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) tell a similar story. The Local met Dr Dirk Hastedt, the IEA's Executive Director, who talked us through Sweden's results.


IEA head Dirk Hastedt. Photo: Catherine Edwards/The Local

"The trends for Sweden were not positive for a long time," says Hastedt. "It was a long term decline. In maths and science, from 1995 we saw a strong decrease, but between 2011 and 2015 we've seen a change in the trend. The reading study, PIRLS, also shows that from 2001 to 2011 Sweden's results went down, but now, they are moving back up again."

These improvements have come as welcome news for Swedish educators and suggest that a slew of measures aimed at getting the country's schools back on track are working. These include hiring more teachers, updates to the curriculum, initiatives to promote literacy, and more teaching time for mathematics.

Meanwhile however, the same studies highlight another problem: the worrying rise of segregation in Sweden's schools.

"What we've seen over the past four years is a positive trend in knowledge and results, but we've not yet managed to break the vicious circles of inequality," Education Minister Gustav Fridolin tells The Local.

The surveys mentioned above not only quiz pupils on mathematics, science (TIMSS and PISA) and reading (PIRLS and PISA) but also collect information on their family background, native language, access to learning resources, teachers' level of education and much more. They all showed stark differences in the results of children from a high socioeconomic background compared to their less privileged peers.

One criticism of TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA is that they don't highlight Sweden's strengths: a broad focus across many different subject areas, and a focus on creativity and independent thinking. In the IEA's ICSS survey, which tests students on democracy and citizenship, Swedish students came third overall and their results were also the most improved since the survey began in 2009. High results here have been linked to an increased likelihood of participating in democracy and voting, and a decreased likelihood of involvement in criminality. But even in this survey, those from more educated, affluent families performed far better than students from less advantaged backgrounds.

And the same pattern is clear from the results of Swedish students graduating from the grundskola (the school attended between ages six and 15). In order to be eligible for the gymnasium (the three-year-long secondary school, offering university preparation and vocational courses), students must meet programme requirements, which vary but always include pass grades in Swedish, English and mathematics.

2017 saw an overall drop in the proportion of students leaving school with grades eligible for the gymnasium, with sharp differences between different socioeconomic backgrounds and areas. Children of parents with a higher level of education were far more likely to qualify. In many schools in Sweden's 'especially vulnerable' areas – defined by police as areas with a low socioeconomic status and where criminality impacts the local community – fewer than half of pupils qualified for the gymnasium this summer.

SWEDEN IN FOCUS: More long-reads about the issues affecting Sweden


A file photo of a Swedish classroom. Photo: Ann-Sofi Rosenkvist/imagebank.sweden.se

One challenge Swedish schools have faced over the past few years is accommodating a large number of newly arrived refugee and migrant children, many of them with no prior knowledge of Swedish.

A 2017 report showed that the performance gap between foreign-born students and native Swedes had increased significantly – but the same study showed that almost the entire gap disappeared when socioeconomic background and neighbourhood were taken into consideration. The results seem to reflect the poverty gap in Sweden between those born in Sweden and those born elsewhere, particularly those from outside the EU. One in three of Sweden's non-EU-born residents are estimated to be at risk of poverty, making it one of the EU countries with the largest gap between native-born residents and those born outside the EU, in terms of risk of poverty. 

"You have to start with a wider view, with the general rise of inequality," says Susanne Urban, a researcher at Uppsala University who studies segregation both in schools and across different areas of society. "There is a rise in inequal wealth distribution across the whole of society in Sweden, and in other countries, and that's reflected in residential segregation and in school segregation."

Last year, Sweden's Minister for Policy Coordination said the country needed a complete rethink of how it worked to tackle and prevent segregation in the society as a whole. The government introduced a new 'anti-segregation' authority, and later announced a ten-year strategy with policies covering housing, the labour market and security as well as schools.

One fear is that inequality in schools will end up feeding inequality in other areas of life. Earlier this year, a Gothenburg teacher issued a call for help via Facebook after noticing her students getting turned down for work experience (a compulsory part of the Swedish curriculum) when potential employers found out the area they were from – one of those labelled as 'especially vulnerable'. 

Another such area is Norsborg, an area south of Stockholm developed as part of Sweden's 'Million Homes Programme', where headteacher Jan Jönsson has overseen a remarkable turnaround in his five years at Karsby International School. Programmes the school has introduced to improve student welfare, and a recent rise in results, show how teachers can deal with challenging circumstances and offer a future to children born into them.

"Norsborg is a deprived area, with mainly immigrant families. There is high unemployment and various social difficulties, including a high crime rate. When I started here, I immediately saw that a lot of students focused more on family issues than on their studies, and there were also very high rates of violence," Jönsson tells The Local.

READ ALSO: How is Sweden tackling its integration challenge?


Karsby International School headteacher Jan Jönsson has overseen reforms to tackle violence and poor results. Photo: Private

During his first three years at the school, preventing violence and tackling its causes were Jönsson's main focus. He worked with social services and local police and implemented a programme known as MVP (Mentors in Violence Prevention), developed in the US and Scotland, where older students took on the role of mentors for younger peers. The rate of violence was drastically reduced, with results visible even within the first year – far quicker than the headteacher had dared to expect. Hailed as a success story, in the past year alone Karsby International School has been visited by three TV crews, and even the King of Sweden. 

But despite having to fill out far fewer police reports for violent incidents, Jönsson wasn't satisfied.

"At first, there was no real change to student grades. I thought perhaps we had only been able to help bring the children better values and a safe environment at the school, and hadn't managed to help them get a better future. That was sad," the headteacher says. "But now we can see that lowering the violence rates has released energy for the staff to focus on study results rather than working with conflicts."


The staff of Karsby International School. Photo: Private

The improvement in results didn't come automatically, and after addressing the immediate problems of violence and disruption, the school looked into new methods to raise test performance. Extra financial support from the government financed two additional social counsellors, meaning the school could help more students rather than dealing only with emergency situations, and it also funded more remedial teachers, providing specialized support for students with diagnoses such as ADHD, autism and dyslexia.

In recent years, government funding to schools has been increasingly weighted to offer more support in troubled areas, where rates of learning difficulties and mental health problems are typically higher than average, requiring more support staff.

Another issue facing schools in deprived areas is that students may not have the same motivation and parental support as those from areas with a higher socioeconomic status, meaning the schools need extra efforts to compensate. One step Jönsson introduced was using class mentors to help with motivation, focussing on the boys, who had underperformed in tests compared to the girls. 

"Class mentors encouraged boys to study more, not to back away from any difficulties, and we set up 'control stations' during the year to check in with the students and how they were doing, to provide structure and catch problems early. This year, the boys' results rose a lot and they are now very good for this kind of area," says Jönsson. In total, almost 80 percent of school leavers at Karsby were eligible for the gymnasium this year, compared to 60 percent only the previous year.

This is an impressive result for the students, but he notes that it won't necessarily help to end the cycles of segregation in the long term.

"I actually think the segregation we have between different areas where people live will get even worse," the headteacher tells The Local. "If the situation keeps developing as it does today, you'll get big groups of people with higher income who see no future here, they will do everything they can to leave, then we'll have lots of free apartments in these areas, which will likely go to new immigrants."

There's another big reason Jönsson says he doesn't see a light at the end of the tunnel for "five to ten years": the shortage of certified teachers.


Karsby International School in Norsborg. Photo: Jan Jönsson

Unions and schools have been sounding the alarm about Sweden's teacher shortage for several years as falling salaries (in the 1960s, teachers received roughly the same pay as MPs, while the latter today earn on average double a teacher's salary) and tougher work environments push more people away from the profession. The Swedish Education Agency predicts a deficit in teachers of 80,000 by 2031, with vulnerable areas likely to be the hardest hit. 

A headteacher at another school in one of Sweden's disadvantaged suburbs, Martin Malmberg from Rinkebyskolan in Stockholm City's council area, shares Jönsson's worry. Both teachers tell The Local that it can be hard to attract skilled teachers to jobs in vulnerable areas, and to encourage them to stay in the job once they've been hired, which has an impact on the children's learning.

"Good teachers who show enthusiasm and capture the students' interests are extremely important. Continuity with the same teacher is an advantage too," Rinkebyskolan headteacher Malmberg says, when asked what factors are important for improving students' grades in disadvantaged areas. 

Fredriksson, the general director of the National Agency for Education, says this struggle worsens the cycle of segregation: "It's a cycle you get stuck in: the more social segregation there is, the stronger the effects of this. These schools find it hard to recruit teachers and headteachers, but schools need skilled people to deal with these issues. It's absolutely crucial that we encourage more people to train as teachers and make it an attractive job."

It's not just the overall number of teachers, but different municipalities have vastly different rates of certified teachers with the gap between municipalities higher than ever this year, ranging from 91 percent (in Habo, Jönköping) to just 37 percent (in Ragunda, Jämtland). Only certified teachers can take on permanent contracts and independently award grades.

Schools in areas with a lower socioeconomic status tend to have a higher teacher-student ratio thanks to extra funding, but also a lower proportion of certified teachers. Swedish as a second language is one of the subjects with the lowest rate of certified teachers, meaning students from an immigrant background might be particularly affected.

The government has set aside additional funds so that schools in areas with a lower socioeconomic status can hire and retain more teachers, as well as to hire more support staff, including teaching assistants and school counsellors, to assist the existing staff.

FOR MEMBERS: How to work as a teacher in Sweden


A view over Rinkeby in northern Stockholm, one of the country's vulnerable areas. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

But there are some aspects of Sweden's education system which may have exacerbated the problem of inequality.

One of the most controversial reforms introduced in the 1990s is the fria skolvalet. The idea is that parents should be able to choose a school that best suits their child, perhaps taking into account location, facilities, and subject focus. Every parent may pick any school they wish.

In practice, the parents who take advantage of this option tend to be the ones from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, meaning that children from privileged backgrounds are likely to attend the more competitive, highly performing schools while children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to attend the default, nearest school. Schools researcher Anders Trumberg has looked at the impact of the 'free choice of school' policy since it was introduced in 2004, and concluded that it was contributing to segregation for this reason.

Ahead of the September election, some of Sweden's political parties have proposed scrapping fria skolvalet altogether, while others call for reforms to the system. The School Commission, set up to investigate inequality in Sweden's schools, recommended that school choice be made compulsory rather than optional to ensure that families of all backgrounds took advantage, a suggestion praised by the OECD.

In the case of Karsby International School, since 2011, the proportion of students living in the catchment area who choose to go to different schools has doubled (with many opting for newly-opened charter schools nearby). Over the same period, the average grades at the school fell, before the increase this year. In the past academic year, there was a slight increase in applications, but Jönsson said this was driven by families from outside the catchment area. 

"People who live here tend to think it's a bad area. I don't think it's even to do with the school, they just don't want their children to be brought up in the area because of the reputation. Instead, we get students from neighbour districts who are interested in this school," he said.


Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf joins a class at Karsby International. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Together with the establishment of new charter schools, this has made things difficult for municipally-run schools in areas such as Rinkeby, where more than half of students living in the area commute to school elsewhere.

"We have a lot of competition, with a lot of charter schools in a 15-minute radius of Rinkeby. Some are professionally managed, but there are also some that promise students the earth if they only pick their school," Rinkebyskolan headteacher Malmberg tells The Local. "Allowing so many schools to be established in one area creates an over-saturation that doesn't benefit anyone."

Uppsala University's Urban says her research suggests that both fria skolvalet and the establishment of charter schools have contributed to inequality.

She explains: "On one side, the pupils and families decide where to go and their choices increase inequality because people with a wealthier background use the opportunity to choose more, and they choose schools with a better reputation. Then you get schools for rich people and schools for poor people, and it's a problem if children grow up never meeting anyone from outside their own social group."

"The other problem is that the system means schools have to compete for students, and spend a lot of money and time marketing their schools."

Urban also suggests that more diverse measures of school quality could help tackle segregation. "You usually measure grades and test results, but if you looked at how students were progressing and developing, maybe you would get another map of success." By this measure, both Karsby International and Rinkebyskolan are success stories, both reporting a year-on-year increase of around 20 percentage points in the proportion of school leavers graduating with grades eligible for the gymnasium.

The Executive Director of the IEA warns that there's no easy way of deducing which policy changes will improve the system.

"It is very difficult to match policy change with outcome, usually the changes that you introduce impact the students' results in five years' time, maybe even ten years," explains Hastedt. "I compare it to a big ship on the ocean – if you're going in one direction and then you change, it takes a while before you're actually close to a new destination. For example if you change a curriculum, teachers need to be taught how to teach it and get used to it before it will really have an impact."

"You also can't just copy and paste education policy from other countries – you really need to analyze the data, look at your own education system and see what helps most," he adds.

However, like the other experts The Local spoke to, he is optimistic about Sweden's ability to improve, pointing out that the country has traditionally been very willing to participate in international surveys. "There are huge differences in countries' willingness to participate, for ministers it could be negative news so it takes some courage. Sweden is very open and has been participating in this kind of study for a long time," says Hastedt.

What's more, Sweden has the resources to put money into the changes, and has been ramping up schools funding with a focus on schools in vulnerable areas that face particular challenges. 

Karsby International headteacher Jönsson says that although he thinks things could get worse before they get better, he's hopeful that an improvement is coming. "I can see that for once, the government and municipalities realize we have to do something about these areas," the headteacher says. "There's a greater acceptance for giving extra funding for schools that need it, and if that is given and used wisely, we have a good chance to improve and turn things around. But this will take a long time."

Thank you for reading. If you liked this article, please consider supporting The Local's independent journalism by becoming a Member. If you are already a Member, please feel free to log in and share your thoughts in the comments section below. Kind regards, Emma Löfgren (Editor, The Local Sweden)

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