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What do the Pisa rankings really tell us about Swedish schools?

As Sweden receives high marks in this year's Pisa rankings, The Local takes a look at what this means for children attending Swedish schools.

What do the Pisa rankings really tell us about Swedish schools?
The results showed that Sweden's reversal of a rapid downward trend has continued. Photo: Maskot/Folio/

1. A continued comeback

In its 2018 Pisa results, released on Tuesday, Sweden performed above the OECD average in all three key subject areas. Swedish 15-year-olds received a mean score of 506 in reading comprehension (compared to an OECD average of 487), 502 in mathematics (489) and 499 in science (489). 

This continues an improvement first seen in 2015, when Sweden finally reversed its downward trend in the international rankings. That year, Swedish students' scored 500 in reading, 494 in mathematics and 493 in science. These were in line with the OECD average in mathematics and science, and above average in reading. 

The comeback follows Sweden's lowest results ever in 2012, referred to in Swedish media as the 'Pisa shock'. That year, the OECD described Sweden as having “lost its way” when it experienced the sharpest drop in results of any country in the survey over a ten-year span, achieving only 483 in reading, 478 in mathematics, and 485 in science.

In 2018, the results have returned to roughly the same level as 2006, when results were first measured in all three subject areas. The reading result was one point lower than in 2006, the mathematics result identical, and the science result four points lower this year. 

Pisa has measured scores in reading since 2000, and in the two first editions of its results, Swedish students scored even higher than today, achieving 516 points in 2000 and 514 in 2003.

“Pisa 2018 is confirmation that many students, teachers and headteachers are doing a good job. Swedish schools have problems to grapple with, but the idea that the Swedish school system is generally poor is a myth,” said the Director General of the Swedish National Agency for Education, Peter Fredriksson.

Skolverket's Peter Fredriksson presents the Pisa results. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

2. Gender gap

Another positive sign is that boys in Sweden are catching up to girls in reading ability.

Globally, girls tend to score better than boys in reading, but in Sweden the gap is reducing. In the latest results girls' reading scores were 34 points above boys', slightly above the OECD average gap of 30 points but below the gap in 2009 of 46 points.

Since 2009, boys' results have improved in reading while girls' scores have remained more or less stable.

Girls also outperformed boys in science, by eight points, which was higher than the average two-point gender gap across the OECD.

In mathematics, girls and boys performed similarly in Sweden, while across the OECD as a whole boys performed around five points better.

3. Lower scores for immigrant children

The OECD noted in its report that Sweden's scores have improved since 2012 despite a rise over this period in the proportion of students with an immigrant background. In 2018, one in five students in Sweden had an immigrant background, up from just over one in ten (12 percent) in 2009.

But children born in Sweden still performed significantly better than their peers born overseas.

In the category of reading, there was a huge 83-point gap between the scores of immigrant and non-immigrant 15-year-olds, with the former performing better. That gap was reduced to a still significant 54 points when accounting for socioeconomic background. 

And Pisa also noted that in 2018, around 11 percent of 15-year-olds were excluded from the tests, which was the highest rate among all the participating countries. It stated that this was “most likely the consequence of the large (and temporary) increase, between 2015 and 2018, of recently arrived immigrants in the school system”.

“It could be estimated that, if the student population in 2009 had the same demographic profile as the
population in 2018, the average score in reading would have been nine points lower than what was
observed that year – and the recent trends would have been even more positive,” the report said.

“The widening gap in reading performance between the highest- and lowest-achieving students also seemed to be at least partly related to growing shares of immigrant students.”

Students pictured at a secondary school graduation. Photo: Christofer Dracke/Folio/


4. Work to do on equality

The Pisa scores also measure equality in schools. By this measure, Sweden is at the OECD average, but this still represents a decline since the turn of the century when it had a high level of equality.

“We have large, far too large, differences in the results between different groups of students and different schools,” said Skolverket General Director Peter Fredriksson.

Children from an “advantaged” socioeconomic background received an average of 89 points higher in reading than their peers from less privileged backgrounds. That's only a small difference from 2009, when the difference in Sweden was 91 points (and the OECD average was 87 points).

And socioeconomic status was a strong predictor of performance in mathematics and science too. It explained 13 percent of the variation in performance in both subjects, almost exactly the same as the OECD average.

But there were also positive signs in this respect. Disadvantaged students were slightly more likely in Sweden than elsewhere to be among the top performers. A total of five percent of disadvantaged Swedish students were top performers in reading in Sweden, compared to three percent across the OECD. 

5. Teacher shortage

While principals were less likely in Sweden than in other OECD countries to report materials shortage, they were more likely to have a shortage of teachers. 

The 2018 results also noted that headteachers of disadvantaged schools in Sweden were more likely to report a shortage of teachers. 

And almost nine out of ten teachers in 'advantaged' schools were fully certified teachers, according to headteachers, compared to only 77 percent of teachers in disadvantaged schools.

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For members


What schools do foreigners in Sweden send their children to and are they happy?

Most foreign parents in Sweden told The Local's survey they take advantage of the country's school choice system and send their children to international schools, or to private or non-profit free schools. Here's what they think of the quality of teaching.

What schools do foreigners in Sweden send their children to and are they happy?

Our survey was not scientific, but out of the 157 people who responded before we closed it, 65 (41 percent) sent their child or children to a standard municipally-run school which did not offer an international programme as part of their teaching. More than a third (34 percent) sent their child to an international school offering the International Baccalaureate diploma (which could be municipal, private, or non-profit).

Almost a quarter (39 respondents, 24.4 percent) sent their children to a profit-making free school. And almost a fifth (29 respondents, 18 percent) sent their child or children to a free school run by a non-profit organisation.

The survey was carried out as part of The Local’s investigation into schools in Sweden. We’ve previously published interviews with foreign teachers at the IES (Internationella Engelska Skolan, International English School) free school chain herehere, and here, and are now looking into other schools as well.

Since the “free school reform” in 1992, private and non-profit companies have been able to run schools in Sweden, with the state paying them for each pupil educated. 

The system has come under growing criticism over the past ten years.

This has partly been due to a decline in the performance of Swedish pupils compared to those of other countries in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The system of school choice has been blamed for increasing segregation. 

In the run-up to September’s election, schools are likely to be one of the big issues. 

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson looks set to campaign on a pledge to ban free schools – dismissed as marknadsskolan, “schools driven by market forces” – from siphoning off profits. 

“The school system we have in Sweden today, which is unique in the world and no other country has chosen to imitate, is a system which essentially drives increased segregation,” she said in an interview in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper at the end of last month. 

“Researchers are pretty much unanimous about that. Pupils with the worst prospects are collected together in one school and those with better prospects in another.”  

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of the centre-left Social Democrat party. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Swedish schools too slow 

The most common complaint from parents who answered the survey was that the pace of education at municipality-run schools was too slow, and the level of academic demands placed on their children too low. 

“[It’s] very slow-paced,” complained a US mother living in Uppsala. [The] education is several years behind grade level in the US.” 

Mangla Sekhri, an Indian mother and IT director based in Stockholm, said she had pulled her children out of the local municipality school after a year and moved them to a school run by the IES chain.

“[I] just couldn’t continue due to [the] slow pace there. It was very slow, but now at IES things are much better-paced.” 


“The only thing which bothers me is lower expectations on the kids, compared to Poland where we come from,” said a Polish respondent. 

“She’s ahead of the other children because she’d already finished two years of school in Guernsey. They don’t give her learning materials of a high enough level without us asking them to,” complained a father from the British Isles. 

Better integration at municipal schools 

For those who had chosen to send their children to a standard, municipality-run school, the big attraction was better integration, both in Sweden and in their local neighbourhood. 

“Their peers and friends at the school are generally their neighbours as well, [so it’s] easy to hang out with school friends,” said an American living on Sweden’s northwest coast, whose four children all went through the local municipal school. 

“My now eight-year-old daughter learned Swedish within months. One year on, she’s completely fluent. She has also made many Swedish friends and has playdates several days a week,” said a British father living in Gävle. 

“If you are an immigrant and planning to settle down in Sweden then municipal schools are good options for your child to learn Swedish quickly,” agreed a dad from Bangladesh, living in Malmö. 

More flexibility and better discipline at private schools

Many of those who had chosen to send their children to a privately-run free school seemed to prize the additional flexibility and better discipline they offered. 

“My child was already three years ahead academically and was very bored in lessons (had already learned everything in maths and science in the UK), so IES let him attend higher years group classes in these subjects,” reported an English respondent living in the middle of Sweden. 

“Free schools have stricter discipline and they focus more on studies,” said a mother from Sri Lanka whose child went to a school run by the Kunskapskolan chain. 

“I like the discipline and all the support that teachers give to the students,” said a mother whose child goes to a school run by IES. 

A parent whose child went to a school run by the AcadeMedia chain, said they were drawn by the additional subjects, such as music and theatre, on offer. 

Better possibilities to study internationally and move schools if posted elsewhere

Those who chose to send their children to schools running the International Baccalaureate programme did so either because they liked the programme’s more demanding curriculum or because they were only on a short or medium-term posting to Sweden and wanted to make it easier for their children to shift their education to a new country. 

One parent, whose child went to the British International School of Stockholm, cited the “ease of transferring to a new school when moving to a new country”, and “exposure to different cultures and points of view” as advantages. 

“I love the IB. It’s one of the best but also most challenging educational systems in the world and this is widely recognised,” said one parent, whose child goes to the international school run by the Bladins Foundation in Malmö.

“Here in Malmö, the big risk is that there are no options for the final years outside the one school. If your child doesn’t achieve the academic standard required, then you are screwed.” 

Who was happiest with their choice of school? 

There was little variation in parent satisfaction between those who sent their children to a municipal, private or international school. 

The parents who sent their children to standard municipal schools rated their school on average at 7.7 out of 10. Those who sent their children to a privately run free school rated their school at 8.2, while those who sent their children to a school run by a non-profit organisation rated their children’s school the highest at 8.6. 

Those whose children went to a school running the International Baccalaureate programme rated the school on average at 8.3. 

There was slightly more variation between types of schools when parents broke down their ratings, with standard municipal schools falling further behind on the level of discipline parents perceived at their children’s schools, and also on the quality of extra-curricular activities.

  Overall Teaching Happiness of child Discipline Extra-curricular
Standard municipal 7.7 7.4 8.3 7.1 6.6
For-profit 8.2 8 8.5 7.9 7.4
Non-profit 8.6 8.6 9 8.5 7.1
International school 8.25 8.2 8.8 8 7.3

Which individual schools/chains came out tops? 

The schools which won the highest approval rating tended to be the international schools run by non-profit foundations, such as British International School Stockholm, Bladins International in Malmö, The English School Gothenburg, Sigtunaskolan, and Stockholm International School (although note that there were only one to three respondents for each of these schools). 

When it came to the for-profit free school chains, there was more variation, with some parents loving their children’s schools and others disappointed. 

Four parents sending their children to the IES chain gave the school ten out of ten, but two IES parents gave their school four or five out of ten. It was a similar story with the Kunskapskolan chain, where one parent gave an eight, another a four.

“The best thing about my child’s school is how respectful the children are towards each other,” send one parent who sent her child to an IES school. “There is a culture of the children being kind and supportive of each other. The teachers have all been amazing, and it’s been really interesting for my child to meet teachers from a huge variety of different countries.” 

Several IES parents also praised how well organised their child’s school was, with high standards of cleanliness and discipline. 

“I chose IES because the school inculcates the right values that I would like my children to have – discipline, respect for teachers, diligence in studying, academic excellence,” one wrote. 

“The staff seem genuinely interested in our concerns. The kids enjoy being there and enjoy learning,” wrote another. 

On the negative side, one noted that “teachers are not paid as well as [at] public schools”, another that “teachers are very often changing”, and another that “no proper curriculum [had been] followed”. 

In general, the most dissatisfied parents had children at municipal schools, perhaps because they were less likely to have actively chosen them. Ten respondents gave their municipality-run school a four or five overall. 

“[There is] nothing to do in their free time and an extremely low level of teaching,” complained one parent, while another complained of “incompetent staff with a lack of social-emotional intelligence”, and another of “extremely large classes”. 

“I’m not entirely sure of the quality of the education,” wrote one Irish parent. “At least one of the teachers seems to think the Republic of Ireland is part of the UK.” 

A particular complaint about municipal schools was the way teachers seemed unwilling to use imaginative and engaging teaching methods. “Some teachers are not able to engage the class with interesting teaching methods,” complained an Australian father. 

Given the level of variation in answers to The Local’s questionnaire between both the best and worst municipality-run schools and the best and worst schools run by the free school chains, it is clearly important to talk to local parents about which school in your area of Sweden seems best.