Education in Sweden: chaotic behaviour in the classroom

Education in Sweden: chaotic behaviour in the classroom

This is Jasmin Andersson’s summary of her first week in her second training placement:

The hardest thing has been the work environment in the classroom.

Many students became very upset, angry or ‘offended’ when I asked them to put down their screens and mobiles, take their bags off the tables, stop talking with each other and take their headphones from their ears.  A pupil I asked to close down his computer or go out answered: ‘It’s not my fault that my match hasn’t finished’ and another who I asked to take out his earphones answered ‘Why do you care?  I get to do what I want’.  The attitude is that the work environment, listening to the teacher and each other and showing respect aren’t important.  Mobile ban in the school?  Yes thanks.  Then of course there is a need for more steps to get a good classroom climate.

I have been in fantastic teacher-led lessons this week, but with just half of the students listening to the teacher, the rest are taken up with their computer game (!), conversations with each other (!), or in social media (!).  And these are the fine students who need a framework for a working environment and teaching the most.

To see good teachers unable to settle the work environment is terrible.  It’s not the teachers’ fault, but how can one not add resources and support to teachers and invest in order in the classroom.  There’s a need for a comprehensive approach to behaviour with all teachers and staff, leaders and parents, working to illustrate the importance of the work environment in school, and the value of education.

Andersson’s experience illustrates the challenges of student behaviour which do so much to prevent learning in Swedish schools.  Having summarised how my views about Swedish schools have changed, Sweden’s falling results and the policy background, this post begins to discuss what has changed in classrooms, specifically, the deterioration of student behaviour, and why it has happened.  How common is Andersson’s experience?

The statistics suggest it’s pretty common.  Around a third of Swedish students say they are disturbed by their peers in most or nearly all of their lessons (the exact figure is 29% in högstadet (age 12-15)) and 32% in gymnasium (16-19)).  Over a fifth describe a disturbingly high noise level.  (See Isak Skogstad’s blog, using Skolverket data, in Swedish).  The percentage of students in högstadet who say they are disturbed by other students has almost doubled since 2006.

Data from Skolverket, see Isak Skogstad’s post (in Swedish)

How serious is this, compared to other nations?  Based on visits to scores of schools in Britain and a handful in Sweden, my impression is that behavioural challenges found in the most disorderly English schools seem normal in a far broader spectrum of Swedish schools.  PISA appears to uphold this.  This table shows the percentage of students who came to late school late three or more times in the two weeks before PISA 2012.


Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany, Japan; (UK, 6.8%) (OECD, 2013, p.42)

Over half (55.6%) of students in Sweden came late at least once in the preceding fortnight, placing Sweden fifth-worst among 64 participating countries (in the UK, the figure was 31.8%).  Whether this reflects disaffection among students, lack of support from parents or poor enforcement by schools, school looks more optional than compulsory.

The picture is similar for truancy: this table shows students who missed one or more lessons in the two weeks before PISA:

Andelen elever som skolkade från lektioner under två veckor innan PISA-mätningen. Källa: OECD

Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany, Japan, (UK, 12%) (OECD, 2013, p. 48)

Why is behaviour so poor?

Democracy, relationships and student feelings have gained excessive weight, at the cost of safety, respect and rigour.  The opening sentence of the Läroplan (curriculum) runs:

The school system rests on the basis of democracy.  (Skolverket [Swedish])

This is the kind of thing I found inspiring on my first visit to Swedish schools and teachers strive to make it work.  But just as a functioning democracy requires strong institutions and safe polling stations, the classroom requires basic safety and respect to allow participation.  Not only is this frequently lacking, according to a large number of trainee teachers, I have struggled to convey to some trainees the potential harm that reluctance to exercise authority in the classroom can cause.  The number of students who are frequently disturbed in their learning underscore the absence of these foundations.

Alongside this, expectations have slipped, in a way that may be familiar to teachers who have worked in challenging schools.  After several years of teacher training, a friend described having observed many teachers who were able to interact positively with challenging classes – but none who were able to get unwilling students to work.  Another teacher told me there was no point in challenging students to put away their phones: the arguments this caused more trouble than it was worth.  I can’t say if she was right or wrong; I can say that one student did not look up from his phone in an hour’s lesson.  Where models of success are lacking, new teachers’ expectations are suffer, and a cycle perpetuates itself.

Who is responsible?

They’ll give the principal the middle finger, what can I do?”

This, from a mature trainee, emphasises the leadership void which underlies this deterioration in behaviour.  The power and the will to change this seem lacking.  The limited sanctions available, like detentions and exclusions, are very rarely used.  Isak Skogstad suggests that attempts to enforce rules can lead to parental complaints and risk student enrollment (see the post on policy, on the importance of student enrollment), so principals collude in suppressing teacher concerns.  Teachers almost invariably report having to negotiate with students and parents, without support from leaders.  Asked by one teachers’ union if they feel well-supported by their leaders in upholding rules and behaviour, less than half of teachers agreed strongly or partly:

Mindre än var tionde gymnasielärare inställer helt på frågan om skolledningen utgör ett gott när det gäller att upprätthålla regler och studiero. Källa: Lärarnas Riksförbund

The school leadership provides a good support for me as a teacher in upholding rules and study environment.  Completely agree (blue), Mostly agree (orange), Partly agree (green), Disagree entirely (yellow), Don’t know (purple).  Left: 7th-9th Grade, right: high school.  Source Lärarnas Riksförbund, see post by Isak Skogstad (Swedish).


Behaviour seems to obstruct learning, for a large part of the day, in a large number of Swedish classrooms.  A decline in authority, a fixation on students feelings and a lack of working examples lead to a decline in expectations.  School leaders and national policy alike seem to need revision to address these challenges.

The vast majority of the data in this post derives from Isak Skogstad’s post, ‘The discipline problem in Swedish schools‘.

I’m grateful to Jasmin Andersson for permission to publish her account at the start of this post.

See also the OECD’s report on ‘Students engagement, drive and self-beliefs’.

The full series:
I: I lost faith in the Swedish school system
II: Collapsing results in Swedish schools
III: Are Sweden’s educational reforms down to disastrous policy reforms
V: Constricted curriculum, problematic pedagogy
VI: False ideas, weak training, limited support
VII: Comparisons with England, conclusions, suggestions