"Swedish schools face many challenges"

COLUMN

23 March 2020

Since the latest PISA review, there has been a certain lull around Swedish schools. But their educational task is broader than the purely knowledge-related one. And in a world where democracy is under threat, pupils lack a desire to learn and mental ill-health is on the rise, there are more issues than viruses to tackle, writes Claes Nilholm, Professor of Education.

What the heading above may immediately bring to a reader’s mind is the challenges that face schools because of the new pandemic. Since this pandemic currently has so much coverage, I am not about to discuss it in this chronicle. Instead, I shall concentrate on challenges with a somewhat longer history.

Claes Nilholm, Professor of Education

Being an education researcher is interesting. School education is an activity everyone has experienced, and on which people often have strong opinions. Swedish schools have been strongly criticised, notably because of their declining performance in international knowledge surveys. Something of a lull has, perhaps temporarily, prevailed since the OECD’s latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey. All the same, in my view schools face a range of major challenges, especially if we see their overall function as broader than it is commonly perceived.

It is by no means easy to interpret the Swedish school system’s steering documents. But I think there are seven tasks that, together, make up what I call its “broad remit”:

1)    the knowledge task, which includes imparting the desire to learn
2)    the democratic task
3)    the compensatory task
4)    the task of developing virtues (such as responsibility)
5)    promotion of personal development
6)    promotion of community
7)    promotion of health.

What, then, should the school researcher’s stance on this broad remit be? A distinction is often drawn between research on school education and research for it. The former is regarded as being in the nature of basic research, driven by curiosity, while the latter sees its purpose as helping to develop schools. At the Department of Education, I myself head a research group in which we are trying to help develop Swedish schools without forgoing scientific rigour. Specifically, we are attempting to help them become more inclusive.

Working for inclusive school education is about taking the broad remit seriously. In a world where democracy is threatened, pupils all too distinctly lack a desire to learn and mental ill-health seems to be spreading almost like wildfire, it is fairly irresponsible to focus on knowledge performance alone – although the knowledge task is always, of course, central for schools. For us university staff, it is also self-evident that genuine knowledge is often something else, and more than tests and grades can measure.

Starting, then, with the broad remit, what challenges do schools face? In a recently published book (“An inclusive school system: Opportunities, obstacles, dilemmas”), I have analysed the degree to which Swedish compulsory school succeeds in fulfilling its broad remit.

Among my conclusions is that many pupils seem to be in a relatively good situation at school, and to embrace core democratic values. On the other hand, they feel that their influence is limited, and are reluctant to get involved in politics. For many pupils, too, the desire to learn decreases during their years at school.

In terms of outcome, there is a lack of data that can show sufficiently well how schools are succeeding – although there is much support for the view that mental ill-health is increasing markedly – in several of their tasks. For every task, we have a group corresponding to 10–20 per cent of the pupils for whom school education cannot be described as successful. Inadequate equivalence thus applies not only to knowledge performance. The Swedish school system, moreover, offers a range of special solutions for pupils who are considered not to fit into standard teaching arrangements, which is questionable from an inclusion point of view.

Based on the foregoing, I believe it is evident to readers themselves that Swedish schools, over and above what is required to tackle the effects of the new pandemic, are facing a range of challenges. As usual, one might say.

Claes Nilholm
Professor of Education, focusing on special education
Department of Education
Uppsala University

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