During the 2000s, the image of falling academic quality has defined the Swedish school debate. For a long time this image was indeed consistent with reality as the performance of Swedish students fell dramatically in international tests, according to Gabriel Heller Sahlgren.
“But my research shows that later, from about 2010, results in all the international surveys have improved, in particular for native-born students – who currently perform among the best in the world compared to corresponding students in other countries,” he says.
According to Mr Heller Sahlgren, politicians and the media are only now starting to realise that the changed demographics have affected Swedish students’ results.
THE IMPACT OF SOCIO-ECONOMIC BACKGROUND HAS NOT INCREASED
In his report, Mr Heller Sahlgren has analysed the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) to see how equity has developed and how it compares to other OECD countries after taking into account variations in student composition derived from the changed demographics.
“It shows that the impact of students’ socio-economic background on their knowledge has not increased at all since the early 2000s. In the PISA in 2018, Swedish schooling was one of the most equitable in the OECD, and just as equitable as the school systems in other Nordic countries, including Finland, when comparing like with like.
“It’s perhaps even more important that in the latest PISA assessment, equity in the Swedish school system held up well compared to other countries, when we compare like with like. Overall, Sweden has one of the most equitable school systems in the OECD, with about the same levels of equity as the rest of the Nordic countries,” he says.
NO SIMPLE SOLUTIONS
According to Mr Heller Sahlgren, the major challenge for Swedish schools today is how we can manage to compensate for the more demographically complicated student base.
“The truth is that there are no simple solutions to the equity problems that this has brought about – and schools alone will not be able to deal with these. The first, essential step in identifying solutions, though, is to accept the formulation of the problem. We have to start discussing the Swedish school system’s outcomes honestly.
“In another report I present research from the US, England and Chile, which shows that the “No Excuses” model of education could be a way forward. The model is described as “warmly traditional” and is based on high expectations of the students’ behaviour and academic performance. Schools that use this model, many of which are located in vulnerable areas, often succeed well academically and the effects are frequently greatest among students with foreign backgrounds and weak language skills.