Swedish reading skills fell in 2021 despite decision to keep schools open

The reading ability of year four students in Sweden dropped slightly more in the five years leading up to the end of 2021 than the average for other EU and OECD countries, despite the country's decision to keep schools open in the pandemic.

Swedish reading skills fell in 2021 despite decision to keep schools open
Skolverket Director General Peter Fredriksson presents the results of the Pirls reading comparison study. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

In latest Pirls reading comparison study, carried out in 2021, Swedish year four pupils scored a total of just 544 points, a sharp drop from the 555 points the country received in 2016 and only a little above the country’s worst ever result in 2011. 

But Sweden’s 12-point fall was only slightly worse than the 10-point fall seen in the other 65 EU and OECD countries which took part, with Swedish pupils as a whole still scoring above the EU and OECD average of 529 points, and even slightly above the 542 average for students in Denmark, Norway and Finland. 

At a press conference held to announce the result, Peter Fredriksson, the director-general of the Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket), put the fall in Swedish students’ reading skills down both to the impact of the pandemic and to an increase in the number of pupils who do not speak Swedish at home. 

“We have said previously that the pandemic affects learning most for the students with the lowest level of resources,” he said.

In the agency’s interpretation of the results, it said that it was impossible to measure the exact impact of the pandemic as all countries were affected. 

However, it said that as different countries had taken different measures that impacted on the education system in different ways, “the effect of the pandemic effect on the education systems of the different participating countries has probably not been the same”. 

Although Sweden kept schools open for the youngest students, education was severely affected for two months or more in about one in every three schools, with either short-term closures or widespread absences due to sickness. 

What Fredriksson said was for him “the most striking” element of the report, however, was the fall in the performance of the students with the most challenging backgrounds. 

These were responsible for almost all of Sweden’s fall in reading performance, with the students who received the highest results still reading at the same level as in 2001, when Sweden topped the Pirls ranking. 

“The number [of pupils] that are at the lowest level has never been higher and that is worrying,” he said. 

There was a 91 point difference between the pupils judged as having the highest level of resources at home and those judged as having the lowest level of resources, up from 73 in 2016. 

“We are concerned at the Swedish National Agency for Education that we have a segregated school system and shortcomings when it comes to equality between schools,” he said in a press statement. “This study confirms the picture we had earlier and even strengthens it.” 

Sweden remains above average when it comes to reading ability, coming seventh equal with Taiwan out of the 65 countries in the study, behind Singapore on 587, Hong Kong on 573, Russia on 567, England on 558, and Finland and Poland on 549. 

Sweden also beat Denmark and Norway, which both scored 539 points. 

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Do Swedish children get too much holiday?

Just as parents in Sweden are juggling returning to work with childcare, the opposition Centre Party has reawakened an old debate: are Sweden's school summer holidays too long?

Do Swedish children get too much holiday?

How long are Sweden’s holidays?

Pupils in Sweden have fewer school days than those of any other Scandinavian country, mainly because they have the longest summer holiday, enjoying between nine and ten weeks off in June, July and August every year.

This compares to eight weeks of summer holidays in Norway, and six in Denmark, Germany, and the UK.

Finland and Iceland both have 11-week summer holidays, while countries such as Latvia, Lithuania and Italy have even longer summer breaks, enjoying up to 13 weeks off.  

What impact does Sweden’s long summer holiday have on students? 

Quite a severe one, according to The battle for time – more time for teaching, a government inquiry which reported its conclusions back in 2021. 

The report cited research showing that students with less active parents, who are as a result “not stimulated” during the long summer break, “can fall as much as three months behind in their skills and knowledge”.

“It appears that longer academic years, and thus more teaching time, could promote the learning and the wellbeing of all students and also contribute towards greater equity,” the inquiry concluded, warning that Sweden’s long summer holidays appeared to be “based more on tradition than on the latest research into student learning”.

The report recommended that the government look into bringing in a three-term system like that in place in most other countries. 

The City of Malmö in 2019 proposed trialling a three-term year in some schools, arguing that children from immigrant backgrounds tended to see a sharp decline in their level of Swedish over the summer. 

“Some of them don’t speak Swedish during their summer break and don’t get to go on holiday but just sit at home and hang around,” the city’s education councillor Sarah Wettergren told the Sydsvenskan newspaper. 

The city’s own inquiry found that the long summer holiday increased the educational disparity between those from different backgrounds. 

“Pupils from socio-economically weaker homes lose a lot of knowledge during the summer holidays and come back with an even worse starting point compared to their classmates from socio-economically stronger homes,” it reported.  

Malmö’s proposal was in the end blocked by Sweden’s school law, which regulates how the school year is arranged. 

What has the Centre Party proposed? 

The opposition Centre Party, in a press release issued on Tuesday, proposed starting by reducing the summer holiday by two weeks, before looking at other possibilities. 

This would not only  benefit pupils, it argued, but also parents, who often struggle to combine work with childcare in the first three weeks of August. 

“This is a mathematical puzzle which its hard to make work out, especially if you are a single parent,” the party’s leader, Muharrem Demirok, said. “The summer also means that pupils in Sweden lose knowledge, particularly in their reading ability. This especially affects pupils who do not have Swedish as a mother language.” 

What has the government said? 

Sweden’s school minister Lotta Edholm immediately knocked back the Centre Party’s proposal, saying that however desirable it may be, a shortage of teachers meant it was currently unrealistic. 

“I think it’s quite simply not possible to have a shorter summer holiday in the current situation, when you look at the teacher shortages, for example, which we see in Swedish schools today,” she said.