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'We haven't managed to break the vicious circle of growing inequality in schools'

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'We haven't managed to break the vicious circle of growing inequality in schools'
Education Minister Gustav Fridolin pictured this summer. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT
07:59 CEST+02:00
With thousands of Swedish children starting a new school year this week, and education one of the top issues for voters ahead of the September election, The Local spoke to Education Minister Gustav Fridolin about the challenges facing the Swedish school system today, and the measures being introduced to tackle them.

Click here to read the first part of The Local's in-depth report on the Swedish school system.

What are the main challenges facing the Swedish education system today, and how have these changed over the past four years?

What we've seen during the past four years is a positive trend when it comes to knowledge and results – we see that in PISA, TIMSS, and other international surveys.

But we have not yet managed to break the vicious circles of growing inequality, which have been growing since the early '90s, so that is our main challenge today.

How has the Swedish school system integrated the large numbers of newly-arrived students over the past few years?

We have a policy which is when you come to Sweden, you should have a place in a school within at the most three months, and as soon as possible, you will have all your lessons in a class with other students. What we've seen is that we have improved results now among the newly-arrived group, compared to 2014, without seeing any indications that quality for the students who were already in the classrooms has fallen down.

One of the problems we're still tackling is that too few schools are doing the work; some schools, especially those in tougher neighbourhoods, shoulder the largest part of the work in meeting the newly-arrived students.

In the past four years, what have been the key measures introduced to tackle inequality in Sweden's schools?

There have been three things. First, a heavy investment in schools: we have gone from a situation where there was severe austerity in many schools, to having hired 30,000 new staff in the school system over the last years. These investments have been weighted in such a way that there has been more money and more resources to the schools in tougher neighbourhoods which have the most needs, and this is something we need to improve further and keep on investing in.

Secondly, we have got more municipalities and more schools taking responsibility for the newly-arrived students. We have a lot more to do in this area, but there are more schools doing this today than four years ago.

Thirdly, there's new legislation which is starting this term and will be fully in effect in one year, and that's a reading, writing and mathematics guarantee in the early years. Quite a few of the students who have big challenges in the later years of school start off with much smaller challenges or problems in the early years, spotted by teachers. If we can help them in preschool and the first few years in school we can make sure that they have the possibility to follow more lessons, to keep self-confidence instead of not getting the right support in time and then having bigger problems later on.


Sweden has not managed to break the cycle of inequality. Photo: Ann-Sofi Rosenkvist/imagebank.sweden.se

Are there any other education systems Sweden is taking inspiration from?

We have great experiences from other countries. The close work with researchers and the profession in the School Commission is very much inspired by Ottawa in Canada and the work they've done. Our work on this reading, writing and mathematics guarantee in the early years has been inspired in part by the system in Finnish schools.

We are taking experiences from other countries close and far, but also from municipalities and schools in Sweden where things are  working well. When it comes to resources, we're now introducing a grant that will grow to 6 billion kronor per year which gives more to everyone, but much more to the schools that are in tougher neighbourhoods. 

What measures have been introduced to attract more graduates to a career in teaching?

We have raised teachers' salaries, and we need to keep on doing that, but the most important issue is the working environment; giving teachers the right environment and the time to do the work. So it's also important to hire not only teachers but also other staff to allow teachers to be teachers and not everything else. That's special needs teachers, teaching assistants, and support staff to work with communicating with parents and other such work.

What is the impact of parental choice?

I think what we need to do is to change, not the existence of parental choice but the way it works. We have free schools that are using a queue system where you really need to put a kid in the queue from the day that the kid is born. We see that these schools have very few pupils that were born late in the year, because only those who are born very early will get in the queue. That's very unfair and creates big differences between the schools. 

We think that it shouldn't be possible to have a queue from that early, and municipalities should be able to demand that free schools use the same kind of regulations that municipal-run schools do, to ensure that you get kids from different backgrounds at the same schools.

FOR MEMBERS: How to choose and apply to the right school in Sweden


Swedish students celebrate graduating from compulsory school. Photo: Sofia Sabel/imagebank.sweden.se

What is the most crucial step to improving Sweden's schools?

I believe that it comes down to resources. As a teacher you should have the resources to work with the students who need you the most. The austerity we had in the schools during the financial crisis is still damaging, and that followed austerity we had in schools in Sweden during the 1990s. Then you need to have a system to ensure that the resources are used in the right way, but if you don't have the resources to start with, you will see problems in schools.

What I think has been different about how our government has tackled the challenges in schools is that we've been much more in touch with the profession, and also the research community. One of my first decisions was to establish a School Commission, where we gathered researchers together with teachers and the pathway forward is very much decided by what we agreed on in that commission. This is close to me as a Green politician – to tackle the challenges in schools in the same way we tackle environmental problems; very closely connected with the research community and what research shows is effective.

What is the next priority for Sweden's schools?

I would say that we need to make progress in the issue of students' psychological wellbeing. We have a growing unhealth in Sweden as in other countries, especially among the girls and in the LGBT community and young people with disabilities, and that also affects school results severely. The Green Party is suggesting a common plan between the state and municipalities and the health system, towards queue-free access for young adults to mental health treatment, so that it's much faster to receive help. 

COMING UP: 'Free choice and charter schools can decrease segregation'

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