The global education community often looks to Scandinavia for inspiration when it comes to school improvement, but a recent OECD report has called on Sweden to implement urgent national reform.
The Swedish government asked the OECD to review its education system last year. When unveiling its report, Andreas Schleicher, Director of the OECD's Education Directorate, didn't pull any punches.
‘It was in the early 2000s that the Swedish school system somehow seems to have lost its soul,' he told the media. ‘Schools began to compete no longer on delivering superior quality but on offering shiny school buildings in shopping centres, and I think that's the issue we are really seeing.'
Improving Schools in Sweden: An OECD Perspective highlights Sweden's performance in PISA assessments over the past decade. The country has gone from average to significantly below average – in 2012 it ranked 28th out of 34 OECD countries in maths, and 27th in both reading and science. No other country taking part in PISA, which assesses the capabilities of 15-year-olds, has seen a steeper fall in performance over this period.
Schleicher did however have some words of encouragement. His foreword to the report maintains that Sweden has many of the ingredients to once again become a model for high quality education.
The country's strengths, according to the report, include high student motivation for learning maths and good student-teacher relationships. On the flip side, the challenges include environments that are not always conducive to learning and student truancy.
The OECD recommendations include: prioritisation of pedagogical leadership, encouraging cooperation among teachers, and increased investment in professional development; a review of school funding arrangements; improving support for disadvantaged students; and the implementation of a national school improvement strategy.
On the issue of school discipline, students are more likely to arrive late for school than in any other OECD country. Despite research to the contrary, most principals in Sweden don't view school truancy as a hindrance to student learning.
A further challenge is that teaching is considered a low-status, and relatively unattractive profession. Its 96 000-strong teacher workforce is also an ageing one. In 2012, 15 per cent of secondary teachers were aged over 60 – the second highest share among OECD countries and well above the 8 per cent average.
There are also specific shortages of qualified maths and science teachers, and an overall shortage of 44 000 educated teachers and preschool teachers is predicted in the year 2020.
At a leadership level, principals in Sweden are devoting less time than their peers in other countries to professional development activities.
With these strengths and challenges in mind, the OECD sets out an ambitious reform agenda covering three key areas: promoting equity; building capacity for teaching and learning; and policy steering, accountability and school improvement.
‘Various reforms and policies have been implemented in recent years to reverse the downward trend in student performance,' the report says.
‘The OECD review considers that these reforms are tackling many of the challenges in a piecemeal approach. There is a need for a much more ambitious and comprehensive reform effort to improve the performance of all Swedish students.'
To download a full copy of the report, visit http://www.oecd.org/edu/school/Improving-Schools-in-Sweden.pdf (5.70MB).