Education in Sweden: I lost faith in the Swedish school system

Education in Sweden: I lost faith in the Swedish school system

In 2011, I spent a week as part of a group visiting schools in Malmö, seeking to discover “fresh ideas” and “why Sweden is held up as an example”.  The blog I wrote afterwards – entitled ‘Why is Sweden held up as an example of school success?’ – explained that: “the radically different priorities of the Swedish education system forced us to re-examine our beliefs about what educational success is”:

As a strong welfare state, Sweden prizes the development of the individual and the pursuit of equality.  Schools seek to build good citizens, with life skills and an intrinsic desire to learn. Testing is of limited importance, and goals are based around a long view of success: the adult who becomes, not the grades a child achieves; responsibility lies with the student to achieve this… In the classroom, relationships are close: students, dressed in their own clothes, address their teachers by first name. Students took pleasure in learning, the relationships they had and the support they received.

In a note I wrote at the time, I recorded that it had taken a visit to Sweden to show me that you “could have a system which did not base itself around the importance of tests, but instead around the end goal of happy, well-adjusted (and then, productive) citizens.”  Naturally, I wanted others to see the light too, and my blog argued that:

For teachers and leaders seeking education that enables the student to become a a well-rounded, responsible and capable individual – able to pursue what Paolo Freire called a “vocation to be more fully human”, a visit to Sweden is essential.

Conducting teacher training in Sweden in 2013, I remained impressed as I read the OECD’s 2012 country note, which reported:

Equity is a hallmark of the Swedish education system…

Relatively few young people in Sweden are neither in education nor employed (NEET). In fact, Sweden has one of the lowest percentages – 10% – of NEETs among all OECD countries.

Sweden has already achieved the goal… of ensuring that at least 40% of 30-34 year-olds in the country hold a tertiary degree…

Equity is also reflected in the idea that everyone is given a chance to succeed in the long run. Sweden embraces lifelong learning…

Equity in education is also reflected in learning outcomes, and in Sweden, students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds perform at a relatively high level.”

The OECD noted only two challenges: good education cost a fair chunk of GDP, and teaching needed to be made more attractive.

I missed the cracks.  So did the OECD.

Image result for swedish flag

Even in 2011, I argued that “if Britain is pursuing greater attainment in Maths, Science and English at 15… we have little to learn from Sweden” and cautioned that:

Idyllic as some of this may sound, there were some concerns that an approach which focuses around goals which are hard to quantify and depends on students’ motivation, does not always sufficiently challenge all students. Profit-motivated free schools and school choice have led to substantial changes, many of them damaging to municipal schools and significant curricular changes introducing more tests and a less student-centred approach are happening this year.

I’ve returned to Sweden five times since 2011.  I’ve trained teachers, visited schools and heard from a range of educators.  The evidence has made clear the limits of the idealism I demonstrated in 2011, and the limits to the effectiveness of Sweden’s schools.  The OECD has changed it’s tune too; the press release for a 2015 report on Swedish schools began bluntly:

Sweden has failed to improve its school system despite a series of reforms in recent years. A more ambitious, national reform strategy is now urgently needed to improve quality and equity in education…”

In a series of blogs, I hope to share some of what I’ve learned.  I wish I knew more about the Swedish education system, but I think I’ve learned enough to write something which redresses the paucity of detailed coverage in English.  I don’t think the problems I’ll describe are unique to Sweden – or ubiquitous within Sweden; I do think they’re worth discussing more generally.

The full series:
II: Collapsing results in Swedish schools
III: Are Sweden’s educational reforms down to disastrous policy reforms?
IV: Chaotic behaviour in Swedish classrooms
V: Constricted curriculum, problematic pedagogy
VI: False ideas, weak training, limited support
VII: Comparisons with England, conclusions, suggestions

I couldn’t have written these posts without the authoritative work of Isak Skogstad, whose blog (in Swedish) I have leaned on heavily in writing and whose comments have contributed significantly to these posts.  All translations are mine, all errors, in translation and otherwise, remain mine.