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How Malmö turned around some of its worst schools

When Malmö's Örtagårdsskolan was built in 1970, the idea was that it would draw pupils both from the newly built Rosengård district to the north, and from the middle-class area of detached houses to the south.

How Malmö turned around some of its worst schools
Rosengård, with the area of detached houses in the background, left. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT
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But over the last 20 years, people in the area of detached houses, called Gamla Rosengård or Västra Kattarp, turned their backs on the school.
Now thanks to a remarkable turnaround at what was one of Malmö's most troubled schools, the first group of pupils in years has come from the area. 
Lina Cagérus Barucija, a psychologist, is a parent of one of the six children from Gamla Rosengård who this year are going to the school. As well as the location, just a ten-minute walk from her house, Cagérus Barucija was attracted by the investment Malmö has made in improving standards and the fact that it has a library with its own librarian. 
“It's not too big a school and they have had a lot of resources for a long time now,” she explained. “Most schools have only one or two förstelärare [an elite grade of teacher], they have ten. That's a big difference.” 
The Malmö artist Ellisif Hals, who also sent her son to the school this year, said that an important factor had been that a group of parents in the neighbourhood had clubbed together, first coordinating over Facebook, then visiting the school together. 
“It helped, absolutely. Just the feeling of having a community around you,” she said of the parents in Gamla Rosengård. “There was one family that was very decided that they were going to send the child to Örtagårdsskolan. Then there was this group that crystallized over a few years.”
She said she had also been impressed by the school's openness, with pupils making a monthly TV news show about what goes on there. 
To each according to their need
Örtagårdsskolan's turn-around is part of a wider story, which has also seen major improvements at other schools such as Stenkulaskolan, and Sofielundsskolan. 
In 2011, Malmö's elementary schools, which cater to children between six and 16 years old, were among the worst in Sweden, coming 270th out of the country's 290 municipalities according to the annual ranking by The Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions. In 2017, the city came 171st. 
“We have climbed 100 steps,” said Anders Malmquist, director of of the city's elementary schools. “All of us who work in schools in Malmö, we are very proud that we've actually made a difference and that the results are a lot better.”  
“Pupils are doing better in most of our schools in our underprivileged areas, and behind that is a lot of work.” 

Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf visiting Sofielundsskolan in 2011. Photo: Stig-Åke Jönsson/TT
Key to the improvement was the decision five years ago to take management of schools away from all the city's districts and centralize them in three municipal school organizations, one for elementary schools, one for upper secondary, and one for free schools. 
Malmquist, who was given command of the elementary schools, decided to concentrate funding in those schools which faced the biggest challenges, both in terms of the large number of native languages spoken by pupils at home and the educational level and economic status of their parents. 
“We made it so that how much money you get depends on what kind of pupils you have in a school,” he explain. “So for example, if you go to Rosengårdsskolan, which is one of the poorest schools, and you compare it to Djupadalsskolan, which is one of the richest, a 10-year-old pupil will get almost twice as much money.” 
While Malmö hasn't halved class sizes in poor schools, as is happening in France under President Emmanuel Macron, it is not far off. At Örtagårdsskolan, there are 11.4 pupils per teacher, compared to 17 at Djupadalsskolan. 
Malmquist said the city had in particular studied the example of Canada, where many schools also have a high proportion of immigrants, leaning heavily on the research of the Canadian educationalist Michael Fullan, who sees encouraging teachers to reflect on their work and learn from one another as the key to turning around schools. 
New faces
According to Ewalotta Benndoff, Örtagårdsskolan's deputy headmaster, the five pupils are the first group to come from the area of detached houses for many years.  
“This is new,” she said. “What happened was that in the spring, the parents of these children contacted us and said they wanted to come, and I met them and told them about the school.”
Cagérus Barucija said that her neighbour in Gamla Rosengård had sent her three sons to the school in the 1990s. 
But then the free school reforms Sweden brought in in 1992 started to increase segregation in the city's schools, and particularly at Örtagårdsskolan, with the very clearly defined border between the Gamla Rosengård and the Million Homes project meaning many parents didn't identify with the area. 
In recent years, parents with school-age children in Gamla Rosengård have either sent their children to free schools such as the popular Kastanjeskolan or to municipal schools further afield. And Cagérus Barucija does not want to blame her predecessors for doing so. 
“The reason that this hasn't happened earlier is that it wasn't so long ago that Örtagårdsskolan was extremely chaotic,” she said. “It has only become stable in the last four or five years.” 
Eight years ago, teachers were being threatened by pupils' families, and a six-year-old pupil walked out of the school without staff noticing, only to be found, lost and panicking by her father on the streets. 

Malmö's Örtagårdsskolan. Photo: Malmö City Council
Even today, Cagérus Barucija admitted, she would not have sent her child to some other schools which still face problems. According to an investigation this year by the Sydsvenskan newspaper, Värner Rydén and Rosengårdsskolan still face problems, with the organization Fryshuset now in discussions over taking control of the former school with the Centre Party. 
Hals said that her decision had not primarily been political. 
“You don't make a political choice with your children's school. No one does that. We're not activists. We just did what we thought was best for our children, as we saw it.” 
Rather than other children in the neighbourhood spread out at schools across the city, as has happened before, her children will benefit from having friends who attend a school less than ten minutes' walk away, she said. 
“You want to give your children a neighbourhood, a place where they feel they come from. It's worth so much. That was top of the list.” 
But she admitted that she had also been inspired by parents in her native Norway who grouped together to send their children to the heavily segregated Tøyen Skole in the centre of Oslo, reversing a process of 'white flight'. 
“Everyone [ethnic Norwegian] was moving away from this school, and then they started this neighbourhood group, and made a radio documentary about this family, and turned it around. I think it's worked well.”  
A place of arrival 

Malmquist said that Malmö's continuing appeal as a place to live for immigrants newly arrived in Sweden meant that the city's schools could never compete with the country's top municipalities in terms of improving its results in the league tables.

“We know that we will continue climbing, but as long as we have these huge amounts of immigrants coming to Malmö, we will not be able to be top 50.”

Rosengård is particularly affected by a high turnover of new arrivals and their children – many of them with no prior knowledge of Swedish – with many moving elsewhere once they are established in Sweden, speak the language, have become used to the school system and have a chance at improving their test scores.

As The Local reported earlier this year, a 2017 report showed that the performance gap between foreign-born students and native students had increased significantly in Sweden – but almost the entire gap disappeared when socioeconomic background and neighbourhood were taken into consideration.

This year, Malmquist pointed out, Malmö's elementary schools took in more recently arrived immigrant pupils than it had done even during the peak of the refugee wave of 2015 and 2016, as the children of families who had been placed in other parts of Sweden moved to the city.

“In Rosengård, they study and get work, and then they move to other parts of the city. And what then happens? You get new immigrants,” he said.

This means that the cycle of segregation continues, unless some families are willing to take the first step. 

Getting rooted
So far, both the Gamla Rosengård couples' children are enjoying Örtagårdsskolan school and making friends, and the parents have been impressed both with the teachers and with the other parents at the school. 
“I thought there would be fewer parents coming to meetings than in another schools, that they wouldn't have the time and energy to engage,” Cagérus Barucija said. “But all the parents were there.” 
She has discovered that as many as 80 percent of the parents at the school made an active choice to send their children there (rather than automatically being enrolled based on geographical proximity), indicating that it draws the children of the most informed and involved parents in Rosengård. 
All in all, Hals has been pleased with what's she's seen. “It's not so easy to say after such a short time,” she said. “But I have a good impression, and also from him [her son], that it's good.” 
She said she hoped that their example would encourage others to do the same, as happened at Tøyen Skole.
“There are really good possibilities for the future, because there are more and more young families moving to this area. If this is rooted, it could be really great.”

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For members


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.” 


“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.