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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?
File photo of students at the elite Sigtunaskolan in Sigtuna, between Stockholm and Uppsala. Photo: Lars Pehrson/SvD/TT

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. 

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How the Swedish school curriculum could change in the future

One of the Swedish government’s goals for the country’s schools is to increase the number of hours children spend at school. Here’s a closer look at the proposed changes.

How the Swedish school curriculum could change in the future

Who will it affect?

According to a new proposal by the Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket) written at the government’s request, this will affect children in lågstadiet, the stage of the Swedish school system similar to primary school or elementary school, for children aged around 6-10 years old.

It will also affect children of the same age in adapted schools and in Sámi schools, with some adaptations – for example, some of the extra hours for Swedish classes may be allocated to sign language classes or Sámi language classes instead.

How much longer will children be at school?

In total, children in lågstadiet will have an extra 178 hours of teaching per year. That’s a 10 percent increase in teaching time, meaning around 20 minutes extra time at school per day or just over an hour and a half per week.

Which subjects are getting more time?

The government specifically told Skolverket that it wanted extra teaching time to be allocated primarily to Swedish and maths, and these two subjects have been given the lion’s share of the new hours.

Swedish and Swedish as a second language classes will gain an extra 80 hours of teaching per year, while students will study an extra 48 hours of maths per year.

Ten hours a year per subject will be dedicated to art, sports, music, woodwork and technology, in order to provide a balance between theoretical and practical subjects.

“If teaching becomes too theoretical, the increase [in teaching hours] could mean fewer students have enough energy for longer school days,” Skolverket writes in its report.

Here’s how school hours for all of grundskola, the nine year obligatory schooling for all children until the year they turn 16, would be allocated under the new proposal:

What will the extra Swedish and maths hours be used for?

The new hours in these subjects will be used primarily for teaching children to read, write and count at an early age, with more hours going to Swedish as improved reading and writing skills will also benefit children when studying other subjects, including maths.

This is similar to other European countries, according to Skolverket’s report, which dedicate the majority of teaching time in primary school to reading, writing and literature.

The most recent international comparison of year students’ reading ability, PIRLS 2021, showed that the reading ability of Swedish year four students dropped slightly more than the average for other EU and OECD countries in the five years leading up to the end of 2021.

“The number of Swedish students performing at or below a low level has increased, and the gap in results between the lowest and highest performing students is increasing. Extra hours for Swedish subjects can offer children further possibilities to improve and train their reading skills,” Skolverket writes.

Why aren’t some subjects getting more teaching time?

Other subjects, like NO (nature-oriented subjects, or science subjects) and SO (society or culture-oriented subjects, like history, citizenship and religion), as well as home economics and English are not getting any extra time.

The reasons for this vary between subjects. Home economics, for example, is usually taught later, starting in mellanstadiet, or year four. NO and SO subjects will be allocated more teaching time under a planned reform in autumn 2024, and Swedish children already have good levels of English, despite the number of teaching hours in primary school being lower in Sweden than in other countries.

What are the downsides of this proposal?

Firstly, more teaching time means more teachers, and Swedish schools are already struggling to find enough trained teachers to teach the current timetable.

According to Skolverket, Sweden already needs 2,300 teachers for years 1-3 to continue to provide the current level of teaching. Skolverket predicts meanwhile that the number of teachers in this age group will decrease by 1,500 from now until 2035, due primarily to smaller year groups.

“The coming need for trained teachers under this proposal means that the expected number of graduating teachers may not be sufficient, which could lead to an increased number of untrained teachers in the affected year groups,” Skolverket writes.

“If measures are not taken to teach more primary school teachers specialising in preschool class and years 1-3, this could lead to increased competition for trained teachers.”

Skolverket further writes that this could affect children with special needs, if teachers trained to work with these children are required to teach full-size classes instead.

“A lack of trained teachers could also mean that more teaching is carried out by untrained teachers, which could lead to worse results,” it continues, adding that it is “of the greatest importance” that this increase in teaching time is allocated sufficient funding, and that measures are taken to increase the number of trained primary teachers.

How will this affect children of immigrants in Sweden?

Many immigrants in Sweden who have children in Swedish schools will be aware of the concept of modersmålsundervisning, ‘mother-tongue teaching’, which is offered to students with another native language than Swedish. According to Skolverket, students with another native language than Swedish who attend these classes are more likely to get better results in school than those who don’t.

However, mother-tongue teaching often takes place outside the usual timetable and often at the end of the school day, meaning that these students already have longer school days than their peers, which means they are often tired, have other after-school activities or have less time to play with their friends.

If the school day becomes longer, Skolverket writes, some of these children may stop attending mother-tongue teaching classes altogether, which could affect their grades later on.

How much will it cost?

Teaching costs for Sweden’s ten years of obligatory schooling, which includes one year of förskoleklass (‘preschool class’) and nine years of grundskola, are around 88.8 billion kronor per academic year, with around 30 percent of this, or 25 billion kronor, spent on lågstadiet.

An increase of 178 hours per academic year for lågstadiet would be a ten percent increase, with “a very rough estimate” of increased costs therefore being around 2.5 billion kronor, Skolverket writes.

The extra teaching time would probably mean less time for after-school classes or fritids, as well as less time for mother-tongue education, which Skolverket expects would save around 0.5 billion kronor.

That gives an increased cost of around 2 billion kronor per academic year, not including additional costs for increased teacher training or any increased school costs for recruitment, classrooms or student healthcare provisions.

When would this come into force?

This is just a proposal from Skolverket so far written on request of the government, and this policy hasn’t yet been formally proposed by the government or voted on in parliament.

Skolverket does request either that this law is enacted at the same time as other reforms to the school timetable which will come into force in the autumn term of 2024, or alongside a future reform of Sweden’s schooling system to add an extra year of compulsory schooling.

If this isn’t possible, it requests at least one full academic year before the law comes into force, in order for schools to be able to plan ahead and recruit teachers.