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Sweden school 'crisis' looms large over election

09 september 2014, 15:52
0
Social democrat party leader Stefan Lofven, and Moderate Party leader and incumbent Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt greet as they arrive for an election debate.  ©AFP
Social democrat party leader Stefan Lofven, and Moderate Party leader and incumbent Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt greet as they arrive for an election debate. ©AFP

  Although considered a model abroad, Swedish schools have become a political battleground ahead of September 14 elections as a debate intensifies over falling school results, AFP reports.

Thousands of middle-class Swedes are increasingly opting for publicly-funded, privately-owned "free schools", which unlike their counterparts in other countries are allowed to make profits.

Anneli Linne, a surgeon, moved her seven-year-old daughter from a local council-run school in Stockholm four years ago.

"It was incredibly old-fashioned... very little focus on how children progress differently," she told AFP.

"She wasn't allowed to count beyond 20 until the rest of the class knew how to do it! The teacher said 'if I let her go ahead, then she won't be interested when I explain to the others later'."

The 42-year-old mother took matters into her own hands and enrolled her child at a new Montessori free school offering English and Mandarin from pre-school level.

Since the introduction of a school voucher system in the 1990s -- allowing students to attend public or private schools cost-free, even outside their locality -- privately-owned schools have grown steadily. A quarter of Swedish primary school students and a third of upper secondary students now attend one.

Free schools grew six times faster than council-run schools between 2011 and 2013.

Unlike their equivalents in the UK -- ironically modelled on the Swedish system -- Sweden's free schools are allowed to be profit-making.

The Social Democrats, leading the pre-election opinion polls, have promised stricter regulations and the Left Party -- whose support they may need to form a government -- demand an outright ban on profits.

  Biggest fall in school results 

In the latest polls, Swedish voters made education their top concern.

But far bigger than the issue of profits loomed the country's sharp decline in the last Pisa international schools' ranking, comparing the ability of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science.

The Nordic nation fell further than any other country in the 34-member OECD group in the December 2013 report -- scoring below average in all three areas -- prompting a national debate.

Some critics pointed to free schools, which they claimed contributed to segregation by plundering council-run schools of the brightest students and teachers.

"When they were introduced there were hopes that they would allow poorer students to move to better schools and even lead to the flowering of new pedagogical methods," said Magnus Oskarsson, who led the Pisa research in Sweden.

"But we can see today... that this has failed."

According to Oskarsson, Sweden has seen the biggest growth in private sector schools since OECD-wide comparisons began in 2000.

And, he said, the gap in results between the best and worst schools has doubled in a decade, without any significant improvement in high-achieving schools.

Claes Nyberg of the Swedish Association of Independent Schools denied that free schools were part of the problem.

"All systems will have segregation effects... school choice is something that lessens that," he said, arguing that when pupils choose schools actively it narrows educational gaps.

"What really drives results is the situation in the classroom. There needs to be more focus on getting the right people into the profession."

  Teacher shortage 

Although a 2011 reform made it harder to recruit unqualified staff, more than 20 percent of Swedish teachers lack a teaching qualification and about 50 percent teach subjects they never trained in, according to the national education agency.

"There's a very high percentage of teachers who are not qualified... which gives another important clue to why we have falling results," said the agency's director Anna Ekstroem.

Both the ruling conservatives and the red-green opposition have promised salary hikes for teachers to encourage more to join the profession and tackle a growing shortage -- estimated to reach up to 50,000 by 2020, according to the national teachers' union.

At Sollentuna International School, a public sector school north of Stockholm -- nestled among low-rise council estates -- the principal Ingela Wall sees no problem with public and private schools competing.

The school's results are above the national average and almost half the students commute from other districts, making it similar to many popular free schools, she said.

"There are a lot of causes for falling results in Sweden but if you just look at how few want to become teachers today, that's clearly one of them," she said, adding that the negative tone of debate about schools was eroding the status of teachers.

"There's been a debate about lowering entry requirements for teaching. But instead you should raise expectations -- make it harder to get in, so we get the best people."

But few expect that graduates will flock to teaching until it becomes more financially rewarding.

"If you look at the European league tables for teaching salaries, Sweden is at the bottom," said Eva-Lis Siren at the teachers' union, "and young people are saying 'no thanks, the pay is too low'."

"Politicians are suggesting things like smaller classes, more special-needs teachers and so on. But where are they going to come from?"

"We'll either have more unqualified teachers or bigger classes. And if we have a problem now it's nothing like what it's going to be in another five years."


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