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Education in Sweden

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Sweden is the home of the Nobel prize, teen environmentalist Greta Thunberg, startups such as music streaming site Spotify, retail chain IKEA, the world’s third largest pop music producer after the United States and the United Kingdom, Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren and novelist Stieg Larsson of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo trilogy.   Sweden’s strong sense of equality and community spirit reflect the Scandinavian country’s education system.

In a country of 10.2 million, children are encouraged early to socialize and work together with their fellow classmates.  There is a strong focus on treating boys and girls equally and this result in a society of class and gender equality.  It is focused on students learning development and begins by focusing on play, community and equality in the first year of preschool.

Sweden’s education system is free at public schools and ranks in the world’s top 10 for reading in international rankings.   Learning abilities in the areas of math, science and reading show some inequality, according to a study in Sweden.  It lags behind neighboring Finland which is consistently rated as the world’s best education system.  Sweden is seeking solutions to address the problems through best practices from Finland and South Korea.

The results of PISA test in 2018 show 15-year-old students in Sweden scoring 506 points in reading compared to 487 in OECD countries, with girls performing better than boys by 34 points.  Fifteen year olds score 502 points in mathematics compared to 489 points in OECD countries.  Girls perform better than boys by a slight difference of 1 point.  Students scored 499 in science compared to 489 points, with girls performing better than boys by 8 points.

Sweden’s school system has been faced with inequality as there are schools with children from disadvantaged background and schools with many immigrant children and parents of lower education levels.   The country’s education system underwent major changes in the 1990s when the first Neoliberal government put into effect various reforms to make schools more cost-effective, competitive and efficient.  Control switched from the central government to the municipalities.  Independently run charter schools (friskolor) received public funding as a result of following national education policy.  Free choice of school (fria skolvalet) was introduced in 1992, giving parents freedom to choose freely among such 800 schools for their child and funding was awarded from the number of students at each school.

Swedish students scored high marks in international education ranking PISA in the early 2000s.  Many young students aged 10 scored the best in 2001 PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) literacy study.    Test results have declined afterwards in over a decade.  Only in 2016 did Sweden show improvements in PISA, reaching average scores.

The decentralized education system is driven by goals and learning outcomes defined at the central level.  The government is responsible to set the education frame work at all levels but municipalities organize most of the education from preschool to upper secondary school, municipal adult education and Swedish tuition for immigrants.  The influx of over 1 million immigrants in Sweden has prompted the National Agency for Education to offer Swedish language to students and adults as a means to introduce the country’s culture and society.  The program aims to develop fluency in Swedish and help immigrants reap the benefits of the country’s education system.

The education system benefits from high taxes to cover expenditures for each student.  Sweden allocates 8.3% of the GNP (Gross National Product) for education, much more than most countries.  Annual expenditure in 2016, for example, was USD 13,693 for each student from primary to tertiary level, one of the highest levels among OECD and partner countries.  Annual expenditure in 2016 for pre-primary level was USD 14,528 per student. Swedish public schools cover all costs for teaching materials including books, computers, media services, school meals, health care and transportation to schools.   Public school is free but annual tuition at private schools is in the range of USD 3,000 to USD 10,300.

The country’s Education Act requires 9 years of compulsory schooling for all children from 7 to 16 and states that children and youths must receive education in the national school system.  Most children start school at 7 but sometimes varies at 6 to 8 based on the preference of parents or guardian.  Compulsory schooling lasts 9 years, no matter when the children start school.

The Swedish school system comprises Preschool (Förskoleklass) beginning at age 6; primary school Years 1-3 (Lågstadiet) at ages 7 to 9; middle school Years 4-6 (Mellanstadiet) at ages 10 to 12; Lower secondary school years 7-9 (Högstadiet) at ages 13 to 15. The Swedish curriculum comprises compulsory courses for primary and lower secondary students and some optional courses for older age groups.  Students in Sweden have the right to choose where they want to go to school in case they do not like their school.  They may change schools whether public or private at no additional cost.

Sweden’s school year at primary and secondary levels includes 2 semesters, with the fall term beginning in late August and before Christmas holidays in December.  The spring semester starts in January and ends in June.  Both terms cover 40 weeks and must have a minimum of 178 days or more of school and a maximum of 190 days each year and 12 holidays.  Students attend the first 2 grades for 6 hours daily while older grades must attend 8 hours daily.  School hours are from 8:30 am to 2:30 pm for younger students.Older students start at 8:30 am and end school at 3:00 or 4:00 pm.

Public and private schools offer the same curriculum under the Swedish National Syllabus.  Students study a total of 16 subjects including Swedish, English, math, physical education, handicrafts, music, visual arts, technology, physics, chemistry, biology, history, social studies, religion, geography and home economics.  The subjects are spread through the school days and some classes take place twice a week, others three or four times a week and science in one time slot.  .

English is the compulsory second language and students learn it during the first 5 years of primary school.  Students who are better in English can make Swedish their second language and English their first one.  It is up to the schools when to start teaching languages and students must reach the national requirements at Year 5 primary school.  A third language is also compulsory and students can choose from German, French or Italian.   Students who do not speak Swedish and speak a different language as their mother tongue still have the right to pursue education in Swedish primary and lower secondary schools.

In addition to languages, students in Sweden are tech savvy and are exposed early to computer coding and programming along with knowing how to source information on the Internet.

In late 2011, a new Education Act (Skollagen) came into effect and offered a new curriculum for the compulsory school system (Läroplan för grundskolan, förskoleklassen och fritidshemmet).  The new curriculum covers compulsory school (grundskola), preschool (förskoleklass) and leisure-time centers.  There is a new curriculum for students who are hearing impaired (specialskola) and schools for students with learning disabilities (grundsärskola). Preschools (förskola) received its first national curriculum in 1998 and replaced in 2018 (Läroplan för förskolan).

Upon completion of primary and lower secondary education at 16, students continue into upper secondary (Gymnasieskola) until the age of 20.  There are 17 different national programs combining compulsory and optional factors.  The 17 programs are further divided into 13 vocational options and 4 academic choices.  There are 6 programs including social science; natural science; business management and economics; technology; arts and humanities.  There are 12 vocational programs including Electricity and engineering; Building and construction; Vehicle and transport; Health and social care; Child and recreation; Business and administration;

Natural resource use; Handicraft; Restaurant management and food; Industrial technology; HVAC and property maintenance; and Hotel and tourism.

There is no final exam but there is continuous assessment  with 4 grades ranging from “pass with special distinction”, “pass with distinction”, “pass” and “fail.”:  Exams can be written, oral, project assessments or a combination of all three.  Students can use various aids during their exams including IT.

The grading system in Sweden uses the A to F grading scales with numbers with the letters to determine an overall final grade at the end of the semester.  The grading system is as follows:

A – 20

B – 17.5

C – 15

D – 12,5

E – 10

F – 0


The Swedish grading system for pupils in secondary and upper secondary schools contains six grades, A-F. The five grades A-E are approved (pass) grades, and F means the results are not approved (non-pass).

Each grading step has a value. Grade E has a value of 10, and the value of each grade over E increases by 2.5, so the highest value for a grade is 20. Results that are not approved are given the grade F, which has a value of 0

For Swedes seeking higher education, there are 3 levels including Bachelors, Master and research.  Swedish students planning to enroll in a Swedish university must have a certificate of completion from an upper secondary program.  International students applying to Swedish university must show they are qualified to attend university in their home countries.  They must show proficiency in Swedish and/or English, depending on the program.  Students from outside the European Union/European Economic Area (Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein excluding Switzerland) will need to guarantee their residence permit is ready once they start classes and pay tuition of USD 13,000 annually.

Sweden entered into an agreement in 2007 with European countries to streamline education standards and procedures.  Anyone studying at a Swedish university can easily transfer their credits to another European institution and vice versa.

The Swedish government pays the tuition of its students until the age of 45.  Students would have to pay for living expenses and textbooks and they receive financial aid such as grants and loans based on the student’s income not the spouse or parent.  Time restrictions apply and most aid ends after 6 years, with the exception of doctoral candidates and students pursuing professional degrees.  Students must show evidence of satisfactory progress in their degree program.

Some of the top universities for international students include Karolinska Institute, Linköping University, Lund University and University of Stockholm.  The areas of sustainable energy, environmental learning and protection, engineering, informational technology attract many international students.

Upper secondary schools and universities have been recommended to close and use distance learning amid the coronavirus outbreak. Sweden reported 30,799 infected cases, 4,971 recovered and 3,743 deaths. This is in contrast to its neighbors Finland under lockdown with 6,399 infected, 5,000 recovered and 310 deaths.  But schools for children under 16 are open, with various measures including attendance by healthy children and staff, regular hand washing, social distancing, extra cleaning daily on school  grounds and spending time outdoors in spring and summer.  Uncertainty remains with the coronavirus outbreak and the situation could change.

The government can make changes without the process of parliament due to a new law and can close some or all schools quickly.  School principals have been given more decision-making duties to introduce measures such as school closure, change teaching methodology and adjusting the school hours.




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