How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools

In Sweden, every fourth student in compulsory education has a foreign background, which means that they were either born abroad or born in Sweden with both parents from abroad. However, students from Swedish families and their peers with foreign backgrounds are meeting less and less often in schools, in a result of increased segregation that is posing a challenge for many municipalities.

How tutor groups are trying to bridge the inequality gap in Swedish schools
Camilla Wennberg and Zamzam, one of her students. Photo: Private

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In 2019, Sweden's public broadcaster SVT surveyed 3,641 primary schools and reviewed data from Skolverket, the Swedish National Agency for Education, on the academic year 2017/2018. The results showed that the distribution of students from foreign backgrounds was very unequal, with some schools having almost only students from migrant families and others having as few as five percent. According to Skolverket, the concentration of students with the same social and migration background might be one of the reasons for an increased difference in school results, which poses a threat to the goal of offering equal opportunities for all.

The relation between segregation and difficulties in succeeding in school was pointed out by some of the migrant parents in study circles that Eva Lundgren Stenbom, a cultural producer, organised in Norrköping, central Sweden, in 2013. The very decision to found her own NGO, Imagine (what we can do), was motivated by an encounter with the mother of a girl who participated in a project Eva Stenbom worked previously. She wanted help to get to know more locals with whom she could practise her Swedish, because Eva was in fact the only Swede she talked to regularly.

Seeing how difficult it could be for a foreigner to establish relations and feel part of society, Lundgren Stenbom created the association and started the study circles, among other activities such as sewing workshops. The events were planned for locals and migrants living in neighboring areas of the city to meet once a week and discuss the everyday issues they faced in their community.

The meetings were attended mostly by adults, sometimes followed by their children. Topics on integrating into Swedish society and parenthood would often come up, and Lundgren Stenbom remembers many parents asking for help with problems that affected their children, especially in school. Thinking about the younger generations and hearing the demand from parents, she decided to expand the study circles to include children.

For the past four years, an increasing number of students with migrant background have enrolled on the tutoring programme organised by Imagine (what we can do). At first, the study circles took place in Lundgren Stenbom's home, located in a neighbourhood that is almost the perfect metaphor for the segregation between locals and migrants. On one side of the street is the Röda Stan neighbourhood, where most of the houses are owned by Swedes, while right across Värmlandsgatan many migrant families live in the Marielund buildings. The organisation started with the aim of creating places and opportunities for the neighbours to meet.

However, the study circles soon showed to be inefficient, Lundgren Stenbom says, because of the busy and loud atmosphere of several students sharing the attention of few tutors. “Sometimes there would be 10 or 12 students for two or three tutors, and it made it very difficult to advance in the lessons,” she remembers. A different system was needed.

The tutoring programme then became individualised, with better results, according to the NGO's evaluation. As it currently works, each student is paired with a tutor with whom they will work for at least one semester. The meetings usually take place at the tutor's house, which proved to be the best solution and one of the learnings the organisation had throughout the years. “Because many of the students live in families with more kids, very often it is more difficult for the student to focus and concentrate on the work without interruption,” Lundgren Stenbom explains.

The programme also recommends that the tutor/student pair set a schedule of weekly meetings on a pre-defined day and a time slot of one to two hours. Feedback and follow-ups are constant, but according to Lundgren Stenbom they lack data on how much the students' grades have improved after enrolling in the programme.

There are currently 35 pupils, mostly aged 11 to 19 years, receiving help with homework or preparing for exams, and another 20 people on the waiting list. Several of them have been in Sweden for almost 15 years, while some have moved to the country more recently. The goal, Lundgren Stenbom states, is to support the students so they progress to higher educational levels and get better opportunities on the job market.

One of the volunteers on the programme is Camilla Wennberg, an engineer who has tutored two students since 2017. Her current pupil is 14-year-old Somayo, from Somalia, with whom Wennberg has worked for the past one-and-a-half years. Before that, she taught Somayo's older sister Zamzam for two years.

Before stricter recommendations to lower the spread of the coronavirus came into effect in Sweden, every Wednesday evening Somayo and one of her parents would cross Norrköping by tram to go to Wennberg's house. The father or the mother accompanied her because they believe taking the tram alone at night is not safe, which Wennberg agrees with. During the weeks when social contact has been more restricted, tutor and student have met online.

The effort that Somayo and her family make to attend the tutoring session and the fact that she has been not only up to date with her homework, but a bit ahead of the class, is a sign for Wennberg that the Somalian teenager has high educational aspirations. “She is more ambitious,” states the proud tutor. 

Wennberg sees the language as a main factor for difficulties children from migrant backgrounds may have in school. “When it's just calculation it's easy, but when you have to understand what the question is asking for, then it is more complicated for her.” Sometimes they translate the questions to English, which helps.

Ann-Sofi Ringkvist and Madeleine Szente, who coordinate a programme by the Red Cross, which has provided support to schools in Linköping since 2011, also believe that improving language skills is an important feature of homework tutoring and one of the biggest challenges for migrant students and their families in the integration to the school system.

Although the programme was not created with the purpose of helping children from migrant backgrounds, but everyone who needs extra educational support, most of the students are currently from migrant families.

The three schools where the Red Cross is present in the city show the divide in the distribution of students with different backgrounds: in the Skäggetorp neighbourhood, the vast majority of students in the two schools participating in the programme belong to migrant families, while in Ekholmen the proportion of students who do not have a Swedish background is much smaller: around five per class. Ringkvist, who is herself a volunteer, believes that children benefit from a mixed class environment and stresses that several students need tutoring, independently of their family's country of origin.

The program is aimed at students from 8 to 16 years of age. In grades seven to nine, the tutoring takes place after school, while for younger pupils it takes place in a separate room during school time. Unlike the initiative in Norrköping, where the tutoring is requested by the families, the Red Cross volunteers collaborate with the school staff. The tutors, many of whom are retired teachers themselves, work with groups of students and follow the instructions from the teachers. During the sessions, two volunteers provide support for groups of 10 to 15 pupils, but there are times when as many as 25 young students are working together.

The large number of people attending tutoring sessions is seen by the organisation as both a challenge and a sign of success. Ringkvist explains that students wanting to receive tutoring is understood as a positive evaluation of the volunteer's work, but that many children in the same room can make it difficult for them to focus on school content.

“There are several goals, the main one is to make going to school pleasurable. We are not supposed to give them grades, we just want to help them, so maybe they find it easier to talk to a volunteer than to the teachers.They can feel more confident of themselves,” says Szente.


Although the adults involved in the homework tutoring programmes see language acquisition as one of the main challenges students with migrant background face in succeeding in the Swedish school system, what do the young students themselves think?

Somayo, who is being tutored by Camilla Wennberg, was unavailable to be interviewed because she was taking part in a two-week introductory programme to the job market and was working part-time in a fast-food chain. Due to her busy schedule, she was not able to attend the tutoring sessions when we spoke to Wennberg.

Somayo's absence did not seem to be a matter of concern, as her tutor stressed how important the work-training programme was for the teenager. Somayo's grades and accomplishments in maths can be understood as a sign of the programme's success, and alongside the fact that she was also doing part-time work, it can be inferred that her Swedish language skills might be much higher than it may seem.

One important aspect to consider, however, is the difference between the academic language skills required to pass exams such as the national high-school exam – usually a source of anxiety for young people, as it defines the educational pathway they are able to take – and the skills required for everyday interactions in informal settings or in lower-paid work.

The unequal representation of students from migrant families in Swedish schools may result in a daily experience of segregation for the young people who are trying to navigate a school system and a culture foreign to their parents. While governmental strategies to distribute students more evenly are being developed, volunteers in the homework tutoring programmes have been making individual efforts to orientate school children.

As Camilla Wennberg describes, her encounters with Somayo and her family are limited to the tutoring sessions, but these are occasions for her to answer questions from Somayo that go beyond mathematics. She thinks of their friendly exchange with her students as an opportunity she would not have had otherwise, something she values.

“It is nice to know her,” says Wennberg. “I think most people can help others teaching their own language, for example by correcting an essay. They just need to be open minded: whatever you can give, it is worth something.”

Myung Hwa Baldini is a journalist working in education and children's rights. She is based in Sweden.

Member comments

  1. But why government or regions distribute students in such a unequal way !
    It sounded like a hidden or maybe systematic racism to distribute people with foreign background !?

  2. Ehsan – why don’t you actually try thinking about a reason rather than cooking up a conspiracy theory involving ‘systemic racism’ (yawn)? I’ll give you a clue, ‘Birds of a feather…’ – can you complete this proverb? The demographics of most cities will prove this to be true. Here’s how it works – if you’re poor, you live in a poor area and will generally find that the schools servicing that area are not great. If you want your kids to go to a better school you have to work your way up the ladder to a better area. Don’t expect everything to be given to you on a silver platter – and scream racism when it’s not.

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Until the convoys return: Cambridgeshire charity finds new ways to help refugees in the pandemic

Cambridge Convoy Refugee Action Group, otherwise known as CamCRAG, is a small Cambridgeshire-based charity that was established in response to the migrant crisis in 2015. A small number of people, eager to make a difference, started to travel across the English channel to the Calais refugee camp to help out local aid organisations in the area. The mission soon grew to regular convoys, driving volunteers and donations on Fridays down to France, and taking the group back on Sunday evenings.

Until the convoys return: Cambridgeshire charity finds new ways to help refugees in the pandemic
The charity's small size has allowed them to stay focused and adapt. Photo: CamCrag
This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

This simplicity is the biggest strength of this small organisation. The short volunteer trips and fundraising efforts make volunteering more accessible. Thanks to this, CamCRAG’s volunteer base is among the most varied in the UK. Current volunteer members come from all walks of life, and are aged between 16 to 80. This diversity has been a strength in developing the charity’s various projects. Most importantly, the shared trips to Calais have allowed the volunteers to build friendships between each other, and a strong connection and commitment to the charity itself.

From the moment the volunteers pack themselves in shared cars, they are starting to develop a personal connection to the cause. “That’s where you turn people into long-term activists”, says CamCRAG Chair Elliot Harris.

The volunteers are driven to France and booked a space in a local youth hostel. On the location, the volunteers will assist the locally-based frontline organisations. 

Most volunteers will not meet any of the people they’re helping, as they’re working in distribution centres or preparing food, but that doesn’t take away from the experience. These personal experiences of volunteers have also been an important part in spreading the word about the charity and recruiting new members through word of mouth.

'Humanitarian über service'

Volunteers are a key part of the charity, and that’s why CamCRAG works towards providing easily accessible opportunities to volunteer. The short-term volunteering opportunities have allowed for a wider demographic of volunteers.

“Because normally, how would you be able to go and volunteer in the frontline with a humanitarian organisation and put your life on hold entirely? ” Harris explains the reasoning behind the charity’s operational model. In a similar attempt to remove barriers for volunteering, the charity offers a few subsidised accommodation spots for volunteers on low income or benefits.

The team. Photo: CamCrag

CamCRAG’s volunteers provide a regular boost to the local charities in France. Harris describes the charity as a “kind of a humanitarian über service”.

Before the pandemic restrictions took hold, the charity was typically sending out convoys every six weeks. This consistency and the know-how fostered by the charity benefited the frontline organisations.

Ponchos rather than tents

The grassroots level involvement has allowed room for innovation. Working closely with other aid organisations has given CamCRAG members a chance to see what’s needed and what works on the ground. The charity has developed a speciality in mending tents, thanks to the efforts of one volunteer in particular. In 2019, CamCRAG experimented with a new idea: they collected hundreds of abandoned tents from music festivals, and got together to repair the tents so that they could be distributed to the people in need, labelled, sorted and cleaned.

According to Harris, aid organisations on the frontline often struggle dealing with donations that are in poor condition.

“We’ve got the philosophy that when things get to Calais, everything we give to the local groups has to be really useful for them.”

A van loaded with usable supplies. Photo: CamCrag

Another project the group developed on the basis of the feedback they got from the aid organisations and refugees themselves are blanket ponchos. The ponchos, unlike blankets, are easier for people to hold onto, and less likely to be confiscated as they are clothing. Ponchos are also easy and cheap for the volunteers to make, so they work for a small charity like CamCRAG.

When the project was first introduced, the charity sent a trial batch and asked for feedback.

“Each time they get distributed, we ask the frontline organisations to report back to us what people think of them.”

Measuring the impact of their work in this way ensures the group is focusing their efforts on meaningful projects and discarding the ones that the recipients find unhelpful. The charity urges its weekend volunteers to speak with NGOs working on the ground, and talk about their experience back home.

“We’re people with a lot of privilege and frankly, this is a hobby for most of us, it’s not life and death for us. So it’s really important that we keep that connection with the people on the front line and the people we are trying to support”, Harris says, “We don’t do things just because it’s nice for us.”

The charity says their small size has allowed them to adapt to changing situations, but the pandemic has proven to be a difficult challenge to tackle. The frequent trips that were at the heart of the charity have been cancelled, and their regular sleepout fundraiser and other activities as well. The trustees are now having to develop new ways to engage with their volunteers.

On the other hand, the situation has forced the charity to collaborate more with other groups. It has resulted in more coordinated efforts to deliver aid to where it’s needed: UK charities have been able to book larger trucks that are able to deliver larger quantities of pallets full of donations to the organisations working on the frontline in places like Greece and France.

“Actually, it’s cheaper… Perhaps this is how we should have done some of our stuff before”, Harris admits, but reinforces how important the convoys have been in helping volunteers understand what they’re working for.

Harris sees this as an opportunity to build a cohesive aid network in the long term: “When the restrictions are finally lifted what you’ll see is a stronger and more integrated aid network.”

The group is keen to develop a more standardized process to their work. “Volunteer doesn’t mean amateur”, Harris says. The logistics of delivering the donations and fundraising will need to respond to the new challenges brought on by the pandemic and Britain’s exit from the EU.

An 'info station' for refugees. Photo: CamCrag

As a small organisation, CamCRAG has managed to establish itself locally. Harris says, however, that the attitudes in the UK towards migrants and asylum seekers have become more hostile over the years. He thinks that rhetoric from the UK media and top-government representatives around “activist lawyers”, has been successful in convincing the public that migration is a threatening issue. In October, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was criticised for attacking the integrity of the law profession by calling immigration lawyers “lefty lawyers” and “do-gooders”

As the charity grows, their focus has expanded from humanitarian aid to policy, and they are campaigning for more long-term solutions to migration. The group is supporting the local refugee resettlement program, in Cambridgeshire. They help new families to settle in the area in a variety of ways, from advocating for their issues to sourcing household items.

Camcrag is also campaigning for the provision of more humanitarian routes for asylum seekers to reach Europe, including improving the chances for family reunification and offering visas on humanitarian grounds. The small charity keeps moving its efforts to where it can be of most help. 

Mirva Villa is a freelance multimedia journalist, currently studying International Relations at Anglia Ruskin University.