Sweden prides itself on being a knowledge economy, but its education system is at a breaking point because of a lack of teachers. The problem may trace back to the decision a generation ago to move to a free-choice voucher system.
STOCKHOLM — For tourists eager to explore the northern extremes of Sweden, Kiruna is a mandatory stop. The city is both the country’s northernmost municipality, right under the polar circle, and also the largest, covering an area similar in size to Slovenia and Wales.
Home to the world’s largest mine, Kiruna made international headlines a few years ago when the city started moving entire neighborhoods after the spreading of cracked formations caused by the mining activities.
But there is another disturbing reality behind the winter hinterland: the city shows, unlike any other, the growing teacher shortage Sweden is confronted with and all its consequences.
In October, more than 200 middle school students within the municipality were required to stay home, a preventive measure the authorities were forced to implement because they had been unable to recruit qualified teaching staff.
No time for bathroom breaks
This had a knock-on effect on working conditions, with teachers raising the alarm about classes with 45 students and not even having time for bathroom or lunch breaks.
Teacher shortage has been a structural issue within the Swedish school system for years.
This led to retired teachers pulling up their sleeves and going back to work, sometimes even coming from other parts of the country.Management started working on finding long-term solutions and helping students catch up.
The situation in Kiruna might seem extreme, but teacher shortage has been a structural issue within the Swedish school system for years — and rural areas of northern Sweden are the hardest hit. This trend is likely to be reinforced by the re-industrialization process that is currently going on in the region, where 10,000 new inhabitants are expected in the next few years.
Free choice vouchers
In an interview with Expressen, Carina Lidberg, the local representative of the teacher union Lärarförbundet stressed the seriousness of the situation: “If no other solution to the problem can be found, the emergency brake must be pulled. I believe that this protection ban has sent out a signal to all municipalities. This is alarming. We must do something together.”
According to the union, there are currently 200 schools in Sweden that could potentially end up in the same situation and be forced to send students home due to teacher shortages.
The situation in Kiruna might be a wake-up call in a country where the education system has been steadily privatised and decentralised over the last 30 years, making teaching a much less attractive profession.
Back in 1991, a left-wing coalition led by the Social Democrats abolished the state-run schooling system, while a “free choice” voucher system inspired by conservative American economist Milton Friedman’s work was introduced by a new right-wing government a year later.
These two policies combined led to a complete overhaul of the Swedish school system. Each student’s family was allowed to freely choose which school to attend, including both public or private options. This impacted the allocation of public funds, since schools would get equal funding from the state for every student they took in, regardless of their statute. Inevitably, municipalities started financing private schools with public funding, which made them highly profitable.
Aurora borealis in Kiruna, Sweden
Consequently, a range of private actors emerged, which created a new social class in Sweden dubbed “the welfare millionaires”. These are people who built their wealth investing in private corporations within sectors that traditionally had been exclusively under the state’s control, such as education or healthcare.
The best example of this development is probably Hans and Barbara Bergström, a couple who founded Internationella Engelska Skolan, one of Sweden’s largest school corporations that offers students a bilingual education in both English and Swedish. With an estimated wealth of 1.5 billion Swedish crowns (€150 millions euros), Barbara Bergström became the richest woman in Sweden through this school franchise and selling some of her shares to foreign investors.
More importantly, the Swedish experience over the last 30 years reveals the limits of this policy: While free choice was supposed to set the students and their families free, it has in reality created two parallel school systems within the same country that are competing against each other.
On the one hand, profit-driven private schools can capitalize on attracting students by getting public funding, while the cost of schooling per pupil for municipalities naturally increases when public schools lose students.
This trend also reveals underlying socio-economic and geographic gaps in Sweden, and creates a vicious circle that benefits the most privileged layers of Swedish society and leaves many behind. But it also impacts the overall quality of education and academic performance, a paradox in a country that prides itself on having a so-called “knowledge economy.”
An empty classroom in Sweden
All of this has left Swedish school systems increasingly scrutinized in recent years, both at home and abroad. According to a survey before Sweden’s general election last September, education was the fourth most important issue for Swedish voters.
Sweden’s increasingly poor results in the PISA study, the international educational ranking system by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), has become a source of shame for the Scandinavian nation. (Finland is one of the world
A few years ago, Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s head of the directorate for education and skills at the even went as far as saying that “the Swedish school system seems to have lost its soul”.
However, a complete overhaul of the Swedish education policy is not yet expected. According to experts, to nationalize the school system would take approximately 20 years, require an additional 200,000 people to work for the system, and a 200 billion crowns (20 billion euros) transfer from the municipalities to the state.
Meanwhile, the students are back to school in Kiruna, but the situation remains critical. Things seem to have become even worse. As Mikael Falk, a teacher at one of the affected schools pointed it out in an interview for public television SVT, “The staff that we were supposed to get and that came here have already almost disappeared. Out of 16 people at the middle school, half may have left by February, that's how bad it is.”
To avoid having an empty school deserted by teachers,, different teacher organizations around Sweden recently started a grassroot campaign called “the school call.” Its motto: “Life isn’t fair, but school should be.”