From the age of six, every child has equal access to free education in Sweden. The Swedish school system is regulated through the Education Act, which ensures a safe and friendly environment for students. The act mandates nine years of school attendance for all children from the year they turn seven.
In Sweden, förskola (pre-school) is provided by municipalities for children ages one to five. The amount of municipal subsidy for pre-school depends on the child’s age and whether the parents work, study, are unemployed or on parental leave for other children.
Swedish pre-school emphasises the importance of play in a child’s development, with a curriculum aiming to ensure children’s individual needs and interests. Gender-aware education is increasingly common, striving to provide children with the same opportunities in life regardless of gender.
A year before the first year
All children are guaranteed a place in a one-year förskoleklass (‘pre-school year’) starting in the fall term of the year they turn six until they start compulsory schooling.
This year is designed to stimulate each child’s development and learning, and provide a platform for their future schooling. Although förskoleklass is non-compulsory, almost all children in Sweden attend it.
Swedish compulsory schooling consists of three stages: lågstadiet (years 1–3), followed by mellanstadiet (years 4–6) and then högstadiet (years 7–9). Children between ages 6 and 13 are also offered out-of-school care before and after school hours.
Compulsory education also includes sameskolor (Sami schools) for children of the indigenous Sami people.
Upper secondary school
Gymnasium (upper secondary school or high school, years 10–12) is optional. There are 18 regular national programmes of 3 years to choose from, 6 of which are preparatory for higher education such as university, and 12 of which are vocational.
While entrance requirements vary between programmes, all of them demand students to have passing grades in Swedish, English and mathematics from their final year of compulsory schooling.
In 2014, 13 per cent of Swedish 9-year students did not have the grades to qualify for a national programme; however, instead of national programmes, these students have five so-called introductory programmes to choose from. From these introductory programmes, students can then move on to a national programme.
There are also upper secondary schools for people with intellectual disabilities as well as programme variations targeting for example athletes.
In 2014, roughly 88 per cent of upper secondary students received a leaving qualification (diploma).
The quality of Swedish education has been keenly debated over the past decade, following declining results among Swedish students in international comparisons. Sweden has moved to improve performances and to raise the status of the teaching profession for long-term benefits.
International studies such as Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) have indicated a deteriorating performance among Swedish children in recent years.
Most recently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which is behind the PISA assessment, followed up on the trends in May 2015 with a detailed review of Sweden’s educational quality.
The study, done on the request of the Swedish Government, confirms that Sweden needs to improve the quality of education and in particular raise the performance level of students in reading, math and science. This can be seen in light of Sweden investing a larger share of its GDP on education (6.8 per cent) compared with the OECD average (5.6 per cent) in 2014.
The relevance of the PISA studies has been questioned by educators and policy makers both in Sweden and abroad. Critics of the standardised tests argue that the studies are too focused on math and science, and altogether exclude areas of education that stimulate personal growth, morality and creativity.
Nevertheless, while the discussion between critics and defenders of PISA continues, the Swedish Government is looking for ways to improve the education system. It has looked particularly at neighbours Finland but also at South Korea, where teachers’ salaries are higher, and at the Netherlands, where class sizes are typically smaller.
Several reforms have been implemented over the last few years, aimed at improving student results and raising the status of the teaching profession:
New education act
The new Swedish Education Act of 2011 contains basic principles and provisions for compulsory and further education, pre-school, pre-school year, out-of-school care and adult education. It promotes greater oversight, freedom of choice, and student safety and security.
New consolidated curricula for compulsory schools for all students, Sami schools, special schools and upper secondary schools came into force 1 July 2011. The curricula contain new general goals, guidelines and syllabuses. The pre-school curriculum includes clearer goals for children’s linguistic and communicative development and for science and technology. Mandatory national subject tests are held in years 3, 6 and 9 of compulsory school to assess student progress. There are also new qualification requirements for areas including upper secondary school studies.
New grading system
The old Swedish system with four grades from Pass with Special Distinction (MVG) down to Did Not Pass (IG) was replaced by a new grading scale with six grades from A to F in 2011. A to E are passing grades, with F as a failing grade. Grades are assigned starting in year 6. The new grading system is very similar to the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), the standard grading system for higher education in Europé.
As of 1 December 2013, professional certification is required for school and pre-school teachers on permanent contracts. The decision, a milestone in Swedish education policy, aims to raise the status of the teaching profession, support professional development and thus increase quality in education.
Vittra Södermalm in Stockholm is one of Sweden’s many so-called charter schools. Around one-fourth of upper secondary students in Sweden go to a charter school.
Photo: Kim Vendt/Rosan Bosch Studio
The number of independent schools with public funding, so-called charter schools, is growing in Sweden. Following a law change in the 1990s, parents and their children can choose among tuition-free schools, whether municipal or private.
Although private schools have been in existence for as long as there has been compulsory education in Sweden, they were not a wide-spread competitive alternative to municipal schools until the 1992 law provided them with public funding.
These publicly funded non-municipal schools are called friskola (charter school) to differentiate them from tuition-based private schools (of which there are only a handful left in Sweden).
Same rules apply
In Sweden, charter schools must be approved by the Schools Inspectorate and follow the national curricula and syllabuses, just like regular municipal schools.
In 2014, around 17 per cent of compulsory schools and 50 per cent of upper secondary schools were charter schools and they attracted close to 14 per cent of all compulsory school students and 26 per cent of all upper secondary school students.
Sweden has its share of scepticism about running schools for profit. Fears include that profits will take precedence over quality. Advocates of independent schools, on the other hand, note the many positive results found in statistical surveys. One is that parents with children who attend independent schools are more satisfied than those with children in municipal schools.