Are We Capable of Doing What Schools Need?

The international comparisons are relentless in their notifications that the Swedish school is on the slide. The parties are feeling the pressure to deliver. Though, unfortunately, it is often rather about things that can pay dividends at the polls than in the classrooms.

Both the bourgeois parties and the ‘Red-Greens’ give lofty explanations that it is more important to have new resources in schools than to lower taxes. They talk more quietly about the fact that Sweden is already one of the countries that invest the most money per pupil.

The Alliance proposes smaller classes in elementary school and wants to train more primary teachers. Should classes become smaller and teacher certification mandatory, then, of course, it will be necessary to recruit more trained teachers.

But wait, we’ve already heard strong signals that it is difficult to attract talented students to the teaching profession! What does this mean for the average level if the number of places is increased, and applicants with even lower qualifications can come in? And what would be the consequences of an increased supply of teachers for teachers’ salaries? An increase in teachers’ status, of which better pay is an important part, is perhaps the most important measure to strengthen long-term school examination results, and it’s not clear that employers are eager to raise wages if the supply of teachers increases.

Even the Social Democrats want smaller classes in primary schools and are careful to mention that it was their idea first. They are less keen to point out that the OECD’s education experts, who presented their Sweden report in February, note that Swedish school classes already are small by international standards, and therein lies the rub.

Even smaller classes can certainly be good. All else being equal, especially younger students learn more when each of them gets more of the teacher’s attention. Though it hangs on everything else being equal, meaning that the teachers who come in must be as good as those already in place, and there are reasons to feel considerable anxiety on this score. If schools are given even greater resources, there are better things to focus on than smaller classes.

Otherwise, the Social Democrats are together with the Left Party, and now even the Green Party, a large part of whose schools policy is about attacking schools operated in a corporate fashion. They are, of course, free to question the profit motive’s inroads into schools, and their criticism resonates with a lot of voters, but this comes from wanting to better school performance. Certainly, it is clear that some of the people who have driven independent schools in a corporate fashion should have devoted their professional lives to something else, but there is honestly no shortage of poor public schools, and at the system level, the problem is neither independent schools in general nor company-run private schools in particular. The results have fallen more in municipalities where there are no alternatives than in municipalities where students can choose private schools.

The Greens fund their remarkable idea that schools should get more resources by raising the income tax on incomes over 40,000 SEK per month. One thus chooses to show one’s commitment to knowledge and studies by adding an even heavier tax burden on the very people get a little better paid because they did well in school and trained longer. Who thinks this favours Sweden as a knowledge society?

The educational debate has got a little better, but it ’s still very much about things other than the narrow road to improved learning. The questions are ultimately not to be avoided: do we really want this? Are we prepared to do what is needed for the results to get better? Both within politics and outside? Many people believe that politicians can do all the work and turn things round, but what if the problem is bigger, and has to do with our society’s attitude to effort, perseverance and the value of knowledge? The concern in the debate seems to me to be about the actual location in Pisa, than on what students are missing out on: that they read less and therefore have less access to the worlds of literature and culture, that they know less about how nature works, that their ability to think logically is weakened.

Students must meet high expectations and have high expectations of themselves. This was emphasised by the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, especially when he visited Sweden in February. For the results to get significantly better not only requires better education policy, it requires that students are taken seriously by skilled teachers and principals, that they strive more, and that the society they grow up in places great and clear value on the knowledge that the school has the task of conveying. Are we there yet? If we were there, would Swedish students lead the world in being late to class?

PJ Anders Linder

VD och chefredaktör i Axess. 

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