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The Organisation of Post-Secondary Education

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Jean Walker asked me for a description of the post-secondary education system in Sweden, so I thought I'd start a new topic where we might learn about several other countries too.

The system in Sweden is basically fairly simple … but it gets quite complicated too! There's basically a three-stage education system here, with a few add-ons.

When children are about 12-15 months old, nearly all of them start at a day nursery. These are nearly all run either by the local council or by cooperatives of parents, and have staff who'll have done a 2-3 year training course at a university-level institution. In my daughter's current day nursery, the staff refer to themselves as 'pedagoger' (teachers). Attendance at day nurseries is voluntary, though, and you have to pay a fee. This fee is currently capped, and we pay 1,260 SEK per month for full-time attendance (8.30 am - 4 pm). That's about $180 or £90 per month.

The next stage is also an 'add-on', but is about to be made compulsory: förskola. This is a pre-primary class offered to 6 year-olds and soon 5 year-olds, in which the activities are little more organised towards things like reading and writing (although pupils aren't expected to be able to read and write before they begin the first compulsory stage of school: 'lågstadiet').

After that you get Classes 1 - 9, which are compulsory. You start Class 1 in the August of the year in which you are seven (so a child born in September will start at the age of 6) and finish Class 9 in the year you are 16. This stage is divided up into two parts: Classes 1-6 and Classes 7-9. It's common to progress from one school to another as you go from Class 6 to Class 7.

At the moment, you don't start getting grades until Class 8, and you get final grades at the end of Class 9 (in the very last half-hour, usually!). These grades are set by the individual teachers, although there are national tests in Swedish, English and Maths, and eyebrows are raised if the teacher's own grades diverge from these national grades too much. The national tests have no legal status, though. There are plenty of teacher-administered tests at school, but no national examination system.

On the strength of the grades you get in Class 9 you are admitted to (non-compulsory) post-secondary 'gymnasium'. Most pupils do a three-year programme at post-secondary level, starting in the year they're 16 and finishing in the year they're 19. Some technical programmes are four years long, though.

In general, the entrance requirements follow the strength of demand, rather than academic merits. Thus the entry requirement for the International Social Studies programme my older daughter has just started (which is one of the toughest programmes in this town - mostly delivered in English, rather than Swedish) is much lower than for the Hairdressing programme, since there are far more people who want to follow a course which gives a vocational training in hairdressing. You basically need what would be called 'straight As' in other systems to be admitted.

All 'gymnasium' programmes involve core subjects (such as English, Swedish and Maths), although the subjects themselves are studied at a number of levels (from A to D), according to the number of hours in total the pupils have studied. Thus everyone will do Maths at A level, but only people doing specialist science and engineering programmes will study Maths to D level. University entrance requirements specify which level a prospective student needs to have studied at, making it impossible to be admitted to a science degree course with insufficient Maths, for example.


Now on to organisation. A few years ago, Sweden introduced a 'friskola' system, which loosely translates as 'free schools'. This allows any organisation or group of people who can get their plan approved by the national Board of Education to start an independent school. You aren't allowed to ask parents to pay school fees - instead the local council is required to pay the school a sum of money equivalent to the sum it pays for each pupil in the local council school. I.e. these schools are independent of local authority control, but the local authority is still obliged to fund them.

Nearly all the 'friskolor' are at 'gymnasium' (post-secondary) level, although there are several schools run by religious organisations (causing a lot of soul-searching when segregated Islamic schools are set up with money from Saudi Arabia …) and one or two non-sectarian secondary schools.

Strangely enough, the friskolor are nearly always established in the more well-off parts of town, and tend to have a very low number of pupils with special needs, or language difficulties …

In Kalmar, the situation is fairly typical. There are three or four friskolor at post-secondary level, but each one has a very particular profile (IT, HGV driving, etc). Profiles are very common even among council schools, though. You'll find 'gymnasium' schools dedicated to ice-hockey, handball, aviation and equestrianism run by local councils. Each of these must follow the national curriculum, though. In a local town, a major local electrical contractor started a post-secondary school which specialises in electrical contracting within its headquarters building. They have about 20 pupils are are extremely well-funded.

The overwhelming majority of pupils go to the council schools, though. There are three very large ones in Kalmar, each with its own profile, but with lots of overlaps (Kalmar has 60,000 inhabitants, by the way). Stagnelius (the one my older daughter attends) is a more academic school; Jenny Nyström has a lot of 'aesthetic' subjects like Drama, Art and Photography; whilst Lars Kagg is the school for people wanting a vocational training. However, as I've said, each of these schools follows the core curriculum too.


At the end of the entire process, it's once again the individual teachers who decide on what grades the pupils are given. There are national tests again in Swedish, English and Maths which are intended to give guidance, but these have no legal status.

Our new Conservative government have pledged to introduce grades at a much earlier stage … but my judgment is that they're just learning how difficult and expensive that is, so they've been a lot quieter about them in the last couple of months.

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Thank you David - that is a brilliant and comprehensive reply. It sounds very much like the model our Minister wants to introduce into our post secondary area (16-19). Perhaps we could discuss what people see as the advantages and disadvantages of your system. Currently in our system we have separate comprehensive senior secondary colleges for years 11 and 12 which offer a mixture of academic and applied courses on the same site, then we have TAFE (Technical and Further Education) which is a separate institution, separately funded, which delivers applied/technical learning to mainly adults although some 16 year olds attend. It delivers appreniceship block training courses, industry training, evening trade courses etc. The intention is to amalgamate these two systems into one very much like your own. Our college teachers are sceptical about separating out students into Academies at age 15/16. Our students leave high school (Yrs 7-10) at late 15 or early 16.

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Here's the English-language site of Skolverket (the national agency handling schools):


Unfortunately most of the information you really need is only published in Swedish. We have a national curriculum document called Lpo 94 which is the 'law' for schools at the moment (Lpo means 'curriculum for publicly-run schools' and 94 is the year it was adopted in). This sets out the information in detail.

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