Collaboration in Education: Sweden and Canada
His Excellency Urban Ahlin, Sweden’s ambassador to Canada, addressing the meeting
There can be no doubt that a country’s education system is a true reflection of its culture and history. The funding of education, who is given access to education, what is taught and how and where it is taught all surely tell you a great deal about any country. So while learning about a country’s approach to education is intrinsically interesting, it is also an excellent way to gain insight into its values and even its politics.
Sweden clearly places a very high value on education, which was reflected in our event’s introduction by His Excellency Urban Ahlin, Sweden’s ambassador to Canada. The ambassador noted that social media has been used during the pandemic to attract Canadian students to study in Sweden with great success. The fact that 1,200 of its study programs are offered in English is certainly a significant enticement to Canadian students. There is currently a focus on bringing Canadian indigenous students to Sweden to pursue post-graduate studies in the north. Canada and Sweden are like-minded countries, he said, which makes it easy to work together.
The ambassador was already acquainted with our guests, Johan Olofson and Maria Hildefors, having met them on their visits to Canada, and was pleased to introduce them as our speakers for the evening. They joined us via Zoom from their homes in Trollhättan and Vänersborg, neighbouring municipalities in Sweden. They each have over 20 years of experience in education leadership, and both have made visits to Canada to share ideas and see what they could learn from the Canadian approach.
Johan and Maria started out by giving us some background on their municipalities of Trollhättan and Vänersborg, where there are about 7,000 students in total. Then they explained the structure and philosophy of Swedish education. I was not expecting to discover that there were major differences between the Swedish and Canadian education systems and our speakers confirmed that “so many similarities” was the constant theme that came up during their visits to Canada
The Swedish Education Act gives everyone the right to education and personal development, with the overall philosophy being that everyone can come with a dream about the future, and that the education system exists to help in the achievement of that dream. This concept of a dream, with the excitement of achieving it, is central to Sweden’s approach to education.
The state has a strong influence on education, more so than in Canada, in that it is the state that sets out detailed curricula with the intent of ensuring equity throughout the country. But the state does work together with local boards which act as independent, local entities. As in Canada, education is financed through taxes. The Minister of Education plays an active role, visiting schools throughout the country.
I was very surprised to learn that many schools in Sweden are not run by the state, but by business entities, and that the state has no influence or oversight over what is taught in such schools.
Canada’s education system has become a focus of international interest because of some eminent achievements in student testing results, so the visiting Swedish educators were interested in finding out how our social systems differ and how Canadian educators view learning. They told us that the findings of Canadian researchers in education have had an influence in Sweden. Sweden’s politicians and educators have come to see Canada as a model to learn from. Shared ideas can and do travel, they noted, and great ideas can be borrowed if they are borrowed in the right way.
Some principals of Swedish schools have visited Canada to “shadow” principals of our schools here. This gave them an opportunity to reflect on their own practices and see how similar goals may be approached differently. These experiences led to some enduring changes. One example given was the rotation of principals between different schools, a common practice in Canada but one that has been much more rare in Sweden in the past.
Johan and Maria noted that Sweden does better with its preschool and adult education systems than does Canada, but the approach to second language learning for newcomers in Canada is ahead of Sweden’s. However, Sweden is catching up. Canada stresses the inclusion of newcomers in the education system and tries to ensure that teachers know how to accommodate learners of English as a second language. The provision of day care for young children of adult learners of English as a second language was mentioned as a Canadian example to learn from.
As an educator himself, CNS President Constantine Ioannou expressed his amazement and admiration of the wonderful physical environments present in Swedish schools, especially in the new schools currently opening up. We know it helps in the learning process, he said. He believes that Canada needs to learn from Sweden’s example in this regard.
Maria and Johan listed three areas of current focus in Swedish education:
Government control is increasing: The national agency for education is decentralizing to new offices to be closer to the local school boards, with which they will be in regular dialogue regarding education quality. They will also have the ability to take complete control of local schools to restore quality of education and order, if necessary. This is a big change.
Lack of equity: The location of some schools in small, rural areas where the local school boards do not have access to the same knowledge and expertise as in larger centres, can put their students at a disadvantage. On the other hand, schools in large urban centres may face their own challenges, such as problematic competition by the schools run by business entities. Lack of equity is currently a central focus of concern in Sweden in general.
Teachers’ professionalism: The teaching profession is rising in status in Sweden and teachers’ professionalism is being reinforced with more autonomy and higher wages. Along with these go higher educational requirements. The scientific basis behind learning approaches is being recognized more and more, and professional development is being given more attention.
The question and answer period that followed led to further discussion on the meaning of equity in education. There was also a lot of curiosity about the alternative system of schools run by business entities. The government first permitted the establishment of such schools in the 1990’s on the premise that competition to the public system would lead to improvements in all schools and that alternate pedagogical philosophies should be allowed. The alternative schools are fully funded by taxes in the same way that public schools are, and many of the businesses that run them make a profit by doing so. Furthermore, some of the businesses operate from abroad. Surprisingly to most of us, the percentage of Sweden’s students who attend such schools is between 30 and 40%.
Our speakers expressed some of the current concerns about these alternative schools. The marketing expertise of the businesses that run them can lead to families making poor choices that may not be in the best interests of their children. The public school system is put at a disadvantage when larger numbers of students with extra needs end up in the public system, but without any additional tax money to support them. Most of the recent newcomers to Sweden have no choice but to enrol in the public system because they are not usually able to pre-register in time to get into the alternative schools. And the fact that the businesses can make a profit from these schools must lead to questions about student/teacher ratios and the quality of the education offered there in general.
(Constantine noted that, in contrast, 96% of Canadian education is public, no tax money is provided to private educational institutions, and such schools must be inspected to ensure that they are conforming with the official curricula.)
Public debate continues in Sweden on whether it is right for business entities to profit from taxes, the argument in favour being that the only thing that matters is that students are getting a better education. Since the Swedish government has absolutely no oversight over such schools, they cannot review student results, verify the teacher/student ratio, or even examine the curricula. Johan and Maria stressed that this issue has become a major point of discussion in Sweden and will likely be an issue in the upcoming election.
There was also good discussion on ways to maintain the Swedish/Canadian dialogue on education, including ways to partner at the school level and even at the student level. Sweden also co-operates with the other Nordic countries, with a recent emphasis on Finland, where exceptional student results have been attained.
And finally, the topic of lifelong learning was raised. It is a very strong tradition in Sweden. Many adults participate in various forms of lifelong learning and it is common for adults to return to school in adulthood to pursue a new vocation, much more so than in Canada.
Constantine wrapped up this very interesting evening by thanking the speakers for staying up so late to give their talks (they started speaking at 1:00AM local time!), and for their enthusiastic engagement and expertise on this very interesting topic.