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EDUCATION

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

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.

'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

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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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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