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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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Why Sweden should protect its fantastic popular education organisations

When the computer programming class Richard Orange's son had loved was cancelled, he got in touch with the local branch of ABF, a Swedish public education organisation, and started it up on his own.

Why Sweden should protect its fantastic popular education organisations

The course in Scratch, a block-based computer programming language for children, was the only extracurricular activity I’d ever found that my son had shown any enthusiasm for and I was disappointed it had been cancelled.

The Covid-19 pandemic had bankrupted CoolMinds, the company that ran it, and the course was called off half-way through. I collected the email and phone number of Fabian, the teacher, and also of some of the other parents, but a plan to move the course to the offices of a parent who ran a startup went nowhere.

Months later, I wandered on impulse into my local branch of ABF, the non-profit organisation founded more than 100 years ago to educate workers, knocked on the office door and found the people there immediately willing to help.

Yes, they could host a course teaching computer programming to children. Yes, they had a computer room upstairs with 10 PCs and a projector. No, I didn’t need to pay anything to rent the room.

All I had to do was start a so-called “study circle” and do a short online course to become a so-called “circle leader”.

After asking around among the parents of my children’s classmates and making a few posts on neighbourhood Facebook groups, I soon had the 10 children I needed, and the course started a week later. 

ABF, launched in Stockholm in 1912 by the Social Democrat party and unions, is just one of Sweden’s studieförbund, or popular education organisations.

There is also Vuxenskolan, which was started in 1968 by a fusion of the Liberal Party’s Liberala studieförbundet (founded 1948) and the Centre Party’s Svenska landsbygdens studieförbund (SLS), founded in 1930.

And finally, there is Medborgarskolan, founded in 1948, by members of what became today’s Moderate Party. 

ABF remains the biggest, according to Statistics Sweden, with some 83,000 study circles run across the country in 2022, compared to 74,234 at Vuxenskolan and 30,169 at Medborgarskolan. 

They are all fantastic resources for foreigners. 

Some 42,871 people born abroad took part in events organised by Sweden’s study circles last year. 

At the same time as my computer course, the ABF centre in Malmö gives Swedish lessons to a group of Ukrainians, and ABF centres across Sweden have since 2015 been teaching Swedish to refugees who do not yet have access to Swedish For Immigrants (SFI) courses. 

Worryingly, Sweden’s study organisations are struggling. The government is reducing state funding for them by some 250 million kronor next year, 350 million the year after, and 500 million in 2026, cutting their funding by about a third.

At the same time, participation has still yet to fully recover from the pandemic. 

Below is a graph showing the total number of people partipating in study organisations, study circles and other types of popular education. 

Source: Statistics Sweden

As a foreigner who has come to the country and been impressed by its strong tradition of free adult education and self-improvement, I feel it would be a terrible shame if the studieförbund began to be dissolved. 

I found ABF such a help in setting up my children’s computing course.   

Once I had the personal numbers of the children and their parents, I loaded them up onto the ABF web portal for circle leaders, and could then tick off whether they attended or not.

When I realised the course was going to be too time consuming to teach myself, I got back in touch with Fabian, whose teaching at CoolMinds my son had liked so much. 

All Fabian had to do was report the hours he taught and his rate. ABF’s administrators then divided the total between each parent and, once I’d signed off that the course was over, sent each of them a bill. Neither Fabian nor I have ever had to deal with any of that ourselves.

The course is now well into its second year and is – given that it’s basically an extra school lesson – surprisingly popular with the children. We’ve started two more courses, one where Fabian teaches Java programming to older children and another teaching a new group Beginner’s Scratch. 

The Local has used ABF’s free podcast studio several times. Photo: ABF

It’s not the only way I use ABF. 

When the studio The Local usually uses to record our podcast in Malmö is booked, we use theirs. ABF used to host the choir my daughter is in. 

Alongside all this, there are all the eclectic events like Tai Chi, embroidery, or even on how to cook Finnish pirogi pies.  

But what is best about Sweden’s studieförbund system is that if there’s something you as a foreigner want to learn about or do, some event or activity you think should exist, all you need to do is get in touch and they will help make it happen. 

Long may they last.