History of Education in Sweden by Åström Elmersjö, Henrik (2018)

The School System Before The Great War

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Swedish school system can be described as a system that differentiated between pupils in a variety of ways. School was compulsory for all children from the age of 7 to the age of 14. However, the way in which they should be schooled was not elucidated. For the majority of the pupils – around 95% in the first decade of the century –, the most basic schooling was provided by folkskolan (“The People’s School”). These schools were paid for by the municipalities and were under the direction of a school board with the vicar as chairman. Thus, the schools were governed by theecclesiastical, and not the civil municipality.The schools received government grants to pay for the teachers’ salaries and the government employed inspectors to supervise the schools: folkskoleinspektionen . However, the secondary grammar school ( läroverket ) was an institution that was presided over by the national government and a large number of the wealthy families’ children (boys) transferred to these schools at an early stage in their education. These boys could be accepted at the secondary grammar school by the age of 9. There was a weak connection between the two types of schools and few of the pupils in secondary education had actually attended folkskola , but to get into the läroverk a pupil had to have a level of proficiency that was equal to that of a pupil who had made it through the three first classes in the folkskola .

The curricula for primary education focused on general Christian knowledge with biblical history, Swedish, arithmetic, history and nature studies. The secondary grammar school was divided into two programs, a Classical Program ( latinlinjen ) and a Natural Science Program (r eallinjen ). The main focus of the former’s syllabus was ancient languages and the focus of reallinjen was modern languages, mathematics and natural science. However, history had a strong position in both programs.

It was around the turn of the century that the school system in Sweden began to be of interest as a way of influencing social politics. Politicians and the creators of public opinion who felt that the separation of children from different social classes could lead to social upheaval, were united in an effort to change the school system with those who felt that the children of the lower classes were cheated of a solid education. The reasons behind the school reform were different in diverse political camps. Cultural and economic changes that were associated with the process of industrialization also had an impact on the reformation of the educational system. Furthermore a new view of the child and childhood could also be found in the official debates on school reform. It seems that one of the major aims of most debaters was that all children should receive basic schooling that did not differ in relation to their parents’ rate of income. The relation between folkskola and läroverk was therefore debated intensively. From a political perspective, different social and economic societal features combined to begin this major debate on education policy.

There were major problems with the intensity of schooling for the smallest children because many schools, and especially in rural areas, could only afford part-time teaching because of a lack of funds. Other obstacles, such as the need for the children to do household chores, were also factors that affected school attendance. Around the turn of the century only half of the total amount of pupils went to schools with full time teaching. The classes were also large and over 50 pupils per class was not uncommon in the first years of the twentieth century.

One of the less surmountable problems for the secondary grammar school was that a great many of the pupils quit school before getting a degree; there was only one degree, studentexamen (until 1910 known as mogenhetsexamen ), which was the degree that pupils needed to be able to read at university. From the year 1905 the secondary grammar school ( läroverk ) was divided into two sections, realskola and gymnasium . The secondary school had been questioned because of the primacy of ancient languages that had contributed to a low frequency of graduates. The curriculum of the secondary school was governed by the preferences of the universities. In general, only the pupils from the Classical Program were accepted to universities, which meant that most pupils studied according to its syllabus; this was beginning to change though and pupils from the Natural Science Program also had the possibility to study at a higher level. When the new Secondary Grammar School Charter in 1905 divided the school system in two, the lower one ( realskola ) was made Latin free. This also made it possible to take out a lower certificate after six years at realskola ( realexamen ). This certificate did not include acceptance to university, but did allow the graduates to study at different types of trade schools. In order to begin at realskola pupils had to complete three years of primary folkskola which meant that pupils had to go in school for a total of nine years to graduate from the realskola . Acceptance to the four-year upper secondary grammar school ( gymnasium ) was made after five years at the lower secondary grammar school, which meant that 12 years of schooling were needed to graduate from the gymnasium and to have a possibility of engaging in university studies.

The location of state grammar schools for the lower secondary level left vast areas in the sparsely populated land without a school at lower secondary level. There were in fact only 58 lower secondary state grammar schools in existence and a further 19 locally funded , coeducational, lower secondary schools. However, a municipality-run middle school for municipalities that lacked a state grammar school and a locally funded coeducational lower secondary school, was formed in 1909 ( kommunala mellanskolan ). This middle school consisted of four years of education after the basic six years of primary school, which meant that the path to graduation was one year longer than with the nationally organized realskola .

The nationally governed secondary grammar school did not enlist girls, but, as seen above, some locally funded lower secondary schools admitted girls from 1905. The only way for girls to reach higher education was through publicly or privately funded girl’s schools ( flickskola ) or through private tutoring. Many girls’ schools were formed in the nineteenth century and had a different curriculum compared to the secondary schools for boys and were mostly private, but funded with government grants. However, new ways of reaching at least the degree which in theory would make girls competent to participate in upper secondary school (equivalent to realexamen ), through different middle schools, made the girls’ schools change their curriculum in 1909 so that they also could provide this competence, but without a degree. The only way that girls could gain upper secondary school competence was to enlist in private schools.

After the second half of the nineteenth century there was also an expansion of People’s Colleges ( folkhögskolor ). These colleges were established as a result of democratic ideals and the perceived need, especially for the freeholders’ children, for a non-bureaucratic general schooling that was on a higher level than the primary school, mostly for the freeholders’ children. The People’s Colleges were both private (many under the direction of popular movements) and public, with the regional councils as principal, and many got government grants.

Politically, the school system was an arena for debate and it was also used as an instrument of social reform, and this included the content of the teaching. The subject of history was beginning to be questioned and was considered to be a conservative and nationalistic subject that needed restructuring. However, history would continue to include cultural and nationalistic features until after the Second World War. As a result of the reform of the primary school curriculum in 1919, the subject of Christianity lost ground, and its aims and direction were changed, which led to objections from conservatives. It has been argued that both the subjects of history and Christianity were employed to enhance an image of a peaceful and stable nation and to hide social upheaval and inequality (Englund 1986:278).

Reformation in the Inter-War Period

With a much differentiated school system that was based on the idea of different needs for children of different genders and different classes, the interwar period started with a number of major political changes as Sweden’s first Liberal-Social Democratic government was established as well as equal and universal suffrage. The school system seemed to be in need of reformation as the separation between the nationally organized secondary school, with preparatory education ( läroverk , separated since 1905 in a lower level realskola and an upper level gymnasium ), and the locally governed primary school ( folkskola ) formed two parallel paths to education: one for the upper classes and one for the lower.

The primary and secondary schools were subjected to new curriculums during the 1920s and this brought about a number of major changes. The new curriculum that was implemented in the folkskola would be in use until 1955. This new curriculum included an obvious intent to standardize teaching time and class sizes in primary schools. The allowance of exceptions to this standardisation process indicates that there were major problems with funding, but nevertheless the curriculum stated what was considered to be ordinary and what were exceptions. The curriculum included objectives for each subject and many result-oriented specifications because a certain level of results had to be met in order for the pupils to move up in the class structure. A two year continuation-school ( fortsättningsskola ) was attached to the primary school in 1918, which made it possible to study for eight years without attending the realskola . However, the pupils at the continuation-school only studied part-time, which amounted to the equivalent of three months full-time studies a year and the compulsory length of schooling was still six years. A new subject was also introduced in this school: citizenship knowledge ( medborgarkunskap ) as a part of the history subject. Even if the idea behind this subject came from the Social Democrats and Liberals, the perspective was conservative because of the conservative hegemony in schools (Englund 1986). However, the subject had the potential to change the fostering of young children in a democratic way, and it was established at around the same time as universal and equal suffrage was introduced (in 1921). It was stated in the curricula that reading should take place for 30 hours a week in the ordinary form of primary education and that there should be a focus on Christianity, Swedish and mathematics (arithmetic and geometry).

Even though girls had been allowed to study at university since 1870, they still had limited access to higher education.As women had to study privately in order to qualify, only women from wealthy families had the opportunity to do so. The girls’ schools had been able to educate girls so that they were accepted at upper secondary school level since 1909, but girls were still not accepted at the upper secondary grammar schools until the reform of 1927. The reform meant that the upper secondary grammar schools that were managed by the national government were open to girls. The reform also meant that the lower secondary schools were divided into two programs, one for four years and the other for five. The four-year program was preceded by six years of primary school and the five-year program was preceded by four years of primary school. The rate of examination of students in the upper secondary school ( studentexamen ) increased from about 1000 in 1900 to about 2200 in 1930. Meanwhile the rate of examination from the lower secondary school ( realexamen ) increased from a little over 1000 in 1905 (when the school form was introduced) to about 4000 in 1930. This was an increase from less than one percent of an age group to almost four percent. After the reform of the upper secondary school in 1927 it did not change in any substantial way until the mid 1960s.

The two school forms that ran parallel with each other prevailed. However, with each reform, the first years of primary education in the folkskola , became more and more a basic school for all children on which all succeeding education was built. Before 1905, pupils rarely went to both folkskola and läroverk . After 1927, most pupils spent at least four years at folkskola before moving on to other types of schools, or ending their education. However, the most important change was that a pupil could more easily use his or her primary folkskole -education to move up in the school-system through either nationally or municipality governed realskola or the locally governed kommunal mellanskola . The links between the primary and secondary education were also emphasized when the control organs were merged into a unified Swedish National Board of Education ( Skolöverstyrelsen ) in 1920.

Even though many of the reforms that were put forwardduring the interwar period were aimed at producing a common school for all the pupils, there was some doubt concerning what all pupils actually meant. The path towards a school system that was equal for all children also made it a necessity to create new solutions for those who “could not” attend a “normal” school. This was not a problem when it was normal that different pupils attended different schools. The idea that all the children who attended school were supposed to be equal in relation to schooling raised questions concerning school forms for “asocial”, “weak minded” and “deviant” pupils that challenged the ideas of a “normal” child. Instead of differentiating between pupils on economic basis, the differentiation was made on the perceived ability of pupils to acquire knowledge and to reach the standard goals of the school. According to recent research, many of the decisions concerning who would attend “normal” school and who would need special education were made at the local level. (Axelsson 2007).

Towards a Universal System in the 1940s and 1950s

Even though the phenomenon of parallel lines of education prevailed despite the newly established middle schools ( kommunala mellanskolan ) and the large amount of pupils that attended the secondary schools, which were now open for girls, it was being challenged in favor of a universal basic school. However, the universal basic school was by no means an unproblematic, foreseeable future in the beginning of the 1930s.

During the 1930s there was a noticeable decrease in the rate of school-reform. However, three changes are worth pointing out: in 1930 the control over the primary schools was shifted from theecclesiastical municipality (the parish) to the civil municipality; in 1933 the practical middle school ( praktiska mellanskolan ) was introduced andin 1936 it was decided that primary education at the folkskola was to be increased by one year – from six to seven years of compulsory school. The latter reform had little effect because most schools already had a seventh year with a further extra year of continuation school ( fortsättningsskola ), and the curriculum as a whole did not change. However, even if no major changes were written into the schools’ steering documents, there were changes in the schools’ social structure and economy. In 1930 a folkskole class consisted of an average of 30 students, which was a distinctchange compared to the situation 30 years previously when over 50 pupils could be in a class, and more pupils sought further education after the compulsory school. The rate of increase of pupils who furthered their education was especially noticeable for girls, but the overwhelming majority were still boys. However, the majority of the pupils still only received primary education. In 1930 less than 10 % of an age group went beyond the compulsory school.

The idea of a practical middle school had a structural and political background because the government had an interest in leading the pupils away from the theoretical education at the upper secondary schools and from the universities. This was at a time middle level practical education was of relatively high value on the labor market, and traders, businesses and the government had a vested interest in maintaining pupil numbers in the practical side of education and work. This was also in line with contemporary pedagogical ideas of “learning for life”.

A new way for the government to supervise the degree to which the requirements in the curricula were met was established in 1938, the State Approval Scheme for Textbooks ( Statens läroboksnämnd ). Before then, most textbooks were only approved by the schools themselves, but from 1938 all textbooks had to be approved by the Review Board. Even though the move was an attempt to centralize the content of the subject matter that was accepted in schools, it had little effect because the subject matter was already affected by the major impact of a few books and intertextuality, and so the textbook market had all ready centralized the subject matter by itself.

In the 1940s, major governmental inquiries were made into the need of school system reform. Most attention was given to the identified need for a common basic schooling, which was to be the same for all children, regardless of residency or wealth. Two inquiries were set up during the 1940s by two different governments, one in 1940 (by the Unity Government during the war) with a conservative chairman, and one in 1946 (by the Social Democratic government) with a Social Democrat as the chairman. Both inquiries concluded that some sort of consolidation between the primary folkskola and the lower secondary realskola should be made. This would also to some degree eliminate many types of middle schools. However, where the first inquiry wanted to see some kind of collaboration between the two school types, the second wanted to see a merger. There were a number of ideological reasons for this reform, for example: democratization (and centralization) of the school system and an opportunity to increase the educational standard for the less affluent and for pupils in rural areas where the standard might have been lower than in urban areas. A universal basic school would also make sure that all the pupils in the age range where schooling was mandatory went to the same type of school, with the same curriculum. The reform would also mean that new pedagogical methods could be applied in all schools (the new ideas often prescribed student activity). The contents of the proposed syllabus also included ideas of democracy and respect for other nations. Another problem that needed dealing with was the fact that many pupils could not meet the high standards that were needed to graduate within the time allotted. Many pupils were not promoted to the next class at the end of the school year in the realskola , and only 50% of the pupils managed to complete school in time.

A decision was made in 1950 about the future school system at primary level. This act was a compromise that would make way for several years of extensive experimentation on a school system that would replace folkskola , realskola , kommunal mellanskola , and fortsättningsskola . The changes meant that the old forms that made up the first nine years of schooling were replaced by a new and compulsory system that stipulated that school would involve nine years of education for all children. It was also written in the act that this new basic school ( enhetsskolan ) would only be implemented if the trial activities in special trial schools turned out to be a success. How this presumed success would be assessed was, however, not specified. Trial schools were established all over the country during the 1950s and this activity played an important role when new reforms were made in the 1960s. The act of 1950 also merged demands for pedagogical reform and school policy reform. The debate resulted in demands for equal educational rights for all children, that all children should attend the same schools, regardless of economic or social class, and that these schools should have the intention of fostering both democratic pupils and pupils with social skills. However, there was also a differentiation – even if it was called “individualisation” – in the last year of the nine year try-out schools which separated the pupils who was preparing for upper secondary school from the ones who had a future in middle level vocational schools and the pupils preparing for manual labor.

The pedagogical aspects of the new school should also focus on children’s activity, which was a movement towards the John Dewey tradition. The new subject, civics ( samhällskunskap ), was a further development of the citizenship knowledge subject of the old continuation-school ( fortsättningsskola ) and had a social fostering and a democratic role to fill in the new school system. The new subject was independent of the gymnasium subject political science that was attached to the history subject in upper secondary schools. This new subject was to focus more on social science than political science.

The idea of girls’ schools became a subject of debate because the new school was meant to include all children. Co-education had always been in practice at the primary folkskola , but the middle and secondary schools still separated girls and boys. The wish to make the schools more democratic, in form and content, made it difficult to enforce a system where different schools were established on the basis of gender.

Very few changes were made in the upper secondary grammar school system during this period, but a new program, the General program, was introduced alongside the Classical and the Natural Science Program in 1953. Otherwise the framework of the school system stayed almost intact between 1927 and 1964. However, other types of schools were established for purposes of further education: Business School and Technical School. These schools were also named gymnasium ( handelsgymnasium and tekniskt gymnasium ). The Business School had been around in different forms since 1913, but achieved gymnasium standard in 1961. The Technical School was established in 1945.

Universal Basic School and a New Secondary School in the 1960s and 1970s

The Swedish school system was still divided into two separate educational lines, but an experimental trial of universal basic school was running. The debates on this date back to at least the beginning of the century, but even though many reforms of the school system pointed in the direction of a universal school, the separation and overlap between the läroverk (nationally governed secondary schools with preparatory schooling) and the folkskola (locally governed primary schools with an affiliated continuation school) was still set.

Before the big reform that would make all primary and lower secondary education (the first nine years of schooling) a universal “basic” school could be agreed upon, a new governmental inquiry was set up in 1957. This inquiry pointed the way towards a universal school for the entire compulsory school, and this inquiry based its work on the trial activities in the schools, which were established as a result of a parliamentary decision of 1950. The differentiation between pupils of different ability was a key question. Conservative forces wanted to enforce high demands on ability in the latter years of the new compulsory school in order to ensure a high level of quality in the upper secondary school. The argument was that if all children were to attend the same school, some kind of differentiation would have to be made, and especially in the last years of schooling so that the pupils who went on to upper secondary gymnasium could do so with as high an educational proficiency as possible. The opposite argument was that all the people in the modern society had to have an education that was more theoretical. The current situation did not call for an education for elites, and one for the peasants, which was a part of the older society before the twentieth century.

As the aim was a more centralized school system, the government’s need to inspect local schools ( folkskoleinspektionen ) was reduced. Consequently, a middle level of inspection was established at the regional level in 1958 (between municipality and central government); Länsskolnämnd . This body inspected all types of schools on behalf of the Swedish National Board of Education ( Skolöverstyrelsen ), the national government, and the county.

The key decision on a universal school was made in 1962 and the new nine-year compulsory school was to be called grundskola . This meant that the folkskola , fortsättningsskola , kommunal mellanskola , realskola and flickskola were to be liquidated and the new school was to have the local municipality as its responsible authority. The differentiation was limited to the last (ninth) grade, where nine different lines of education were established. One of these lines focused on preparing pupils for the upper secondary school. These nine lines of education could be merged together into three groups: One focused on preparing pupils for the upper secondary school, one on a more general vocational education, and one that was considered to be the first year of schooling towards work in the manual labor sector. A similar system had been in use in the trial schools of the 1950s. The new school had no degree, which meant that no one could be held back and pupils could not be forced to leave school because of the poor level of their results. The reform was implemented gradually from the first grade, which meant that it would take nine years before it was fully implemented and all the other school forms in the primary and lower secondary level were replaced. The differentiation in the ninth grade only lasted for a few years, and only in schools that implemented the reform quicker than they had to or as a rest from the trial schools. With the implementation of the new curricula from 1969 ( Lgr69 ) the differentiation in the form of different lines of education in the ninth grade were thrown out and the entire nine-year compulsory school, grundskola , was made integrated.

On a curricular level the discussions focused on the formation of “block-subjects”. This made it possible to “create” one subject out of all the general subjects (civics, history, geography and natural science) in the elementary stages of the primary school and to form two block subjects in the later stages of primary school; one nature block consisting of biology, chemistry and physics, and one societal block consisting of civics, geography and history. This opened up the school to more project-based pedagogy and the educational policy seemingly turned its back on the essentialist view of the subjects as homogenous and structurally incompatible. Towards the end of the 1960s a new curriculum was approved which further established support-subject status of the general subjects in relation to the “more important” skills of reading, writing and calculating. The reform meant that the subject Christianity was renamed religious studies and became a part of the general subjects (in the societal block). The effect of the reform was that the extent to which the general subjects were given space in the curriculum was reduced, but there were also pedagogical ideas behind the reform; the pupils themselves transcended subject boundaries and by forming the subjects into blocks the teachers could elaborate on this transcendence while being more clear in their explanations of the subjects’ individual character.

The upper secondary school also saw the beginning of major changes during the 1960s. The different types of primary and lower secondary schools had been merged into universal forms, and these ideas spread to upper secondary school education, and the formation of a universal gymnasium was discussed. A reform was adopted in 1964 that ensured that the upper secondary schools were made into an integrated school form. The trade schools and technical schools were incorporated with the general upper secondary school ( läroverk ). In contrast to the new primary school, the secondary school was made gradually differentiated. The first grade of secondary school was similar for all the pupils, but the second grade was divided into a humanistic course, a social science course, an economics course, a natural science course and a technical course. These courses, or programs, coincided with the old upper secondary schools’ different programs, with the trade school and the technical school being upgraded (in theory) to the same level as the old läroverk . All the programs required three years of study with the exception of the technical program that required four. The reform also created a two-year training school ( fackskola ), which had one social, one economic and one technical course. The degree that had been awarded to pupils who had left the gymnasium ( studentexamen ) with the requisite knowledge was thrown out, and both the primary and the secondary schools were left without degrees. Central tests were introduced both in primary and secondary schools to make sure that pupils who left the schools had the education that the steering documents required. These tests were the same in all the schools in the country, which meant that, in theory, the grading process was the same for all the pupils. The separation of history and political science was also regulated in the reform, and the new civics subject was further separated from the history subject when it was allocated to the academic subjects of political economy and political science (and not to economic history). The new subject was also imbued with a social dimension, which made it similar to the civics subject in the primary schools. The name was also the same: samhällskunskap.

In 1968 the voluntary school was even more integrated when the vocational school ( yrkesskola ), and the training school ( fackskola ) was made a part of the gymnasium , which was now called gymnasieskola . The vocational school was made into a two-year program, but without a specialised syllabus and prepared its pupils for the general labor market. It was also broadened with more general subjects, like civics. The curriculum for the gymnasieskola came into being at the beginning of the 1970s ( Lgy 70 ). All upper secondary level studies from the vocational to the theoretical schools were integrated in relation to the organizational structure. However, the different programs had their own regulatory framework in relation to each subject. History in the Civics Program was not the same as history in the Social Program.

The development of Swedish schools from the 1950s to the 1970s was characterised by democratisation, centralisation, secularisation and an eradication of the degree system in both primary and secondary schools. At the end of the 1960s Sweden had a two-tiered school system (below university level) with nine years of compulsory school (ages 7–16) and a two-to-four year secondary school with an increasing amount of pupils. Between 1900 and 1950 the number of pupils who left the upper secondary school ( gymnasium ) with a degree grew from about 1000 to 5000. However, from 1950 to 1968 (when the last degrees were issued) the number grew to 25000; that is, around 20 % of all the adolescents in an age group. The overall development could be said to have been enforced by a parliamentary coalition of social democrats and liberals, but the opposition from conservatives was quite weak, making the overall reform almost a matter of political consensus.

The economic and organisational responsibilities for the schools became a question in itself because different authorities had been responsible for different types of schools before the 1960s. The central government either maintained (for the lower and upper secondary schools) or took over (for the primary schools) the authority over teachers and their salaries, whereas the local municipalities either maintained or took over the operational responsibility. However, as most of the schools’ activities and functions were state regulated, the operational responsibility was limited to the act of transforming government grants into education, in accordance with the regulatory instructions from the parliament, government and the Swedish National Board of Education ( Skolöverstyrelsen ).

A long debate and the determination to create a universal system led to a two-tiered school system that was launched during the 1960s. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the basic education of Swedish children was accomplished through a mixture of types of schools, and each type of school had its own set of exceptions and provisional solutions. By 1970 the school system seemed more unified and thus easier to gain an overview of and easier to govern. However, there were now calls for changes in the school system, which was considered to be rigid and un-dynamic; the decentralisation of the newly centralised schools was called for.

An inquiry into the schools’ inner workings ( SIA-utredningen ) was carried out in the early years of the 1970s in order to evaluate the integrated school system and the pupils’ ability to attend the same classes and still produce good results. This inquiry identified a few problems with the organization of the educational system and went further than the proposed reach of the inquiry by making a number of suggestions for change. One of the major problems identified was the regulatory management of the schools, which made it difficult for the local-level organizations to adjust to the challenges that schools met in their everyday work. A process was initiated in which the previous regulatory management was replaced by the setting up of objectives. This would also place the schools’ approach to pedagogy in the hands of the local governing bodies because there is more than one way to reach an objective, but only one way to meet a regulation. The local governing bodies in the municipalities were to be in charge of the disposal of state funding. Without direct regulations that determined the way in which the local governments used the funding, there would be more room for local disparity that supposedly would support a more dynamic education.

The implementation process of these new ideas in education began with two parliamentary decisions. In 1976, the decision was made to provide local governing bodies with more control over the pedagogical methods used in school, and in 1978, changes in the usage of the state subsidy were introduced (a non-socialist government had come into power in 1976 after 44 years of Social Democratic rule. Therefore, the second decision was made with a non-socialist majority in parliament). These were not fundamental changes, but they forced the local municipalities to take more responsibility in the governing and assessment of their schools. The changes in pedagogy were focused more on education through dialogue. The development of these ideas illustrated the differences between the movement for democratic change (the “pupil in the center idea”), and what can be described as a “knowledge movement” that positioned knowledge at the center of school work and as the basis of all school activity. The antagonism between these two movements can also be described as imagined or exaggerated because the “pupil in the center” idea did, of course, include knowledge, and the “knowledge movement” did not oppose democracy. However, the “knowledge movement” felt that schools spent more time and effort on other things than basic knowledge, such as pupil activity, dialogue education and other pedagogical practices that were categorized as “blathering woolliness”. In contrast, the democratic movement was conscious of the risks of the school system regressing to the former disciplinary, social sorting tool that it once was.

Following the decisions of 1976 and 1978 a new curriculum for the nine-year compulsory school was passed in 1980. This curriculum was more individualized and freer in relation to both local solutions and to the individual pupil who gained more influence over his or her own education with more free choices. The culture-bearing profile of education continued, but this activity was taken over by the subject of Swedish and not as previously by the history and Christianity subjects.

Decentralisation and New Curriculum in the 1990s

The centralisation of the school system, which involved a fully integrated primary level, a following secondary level and a philosophy of equal education for all, had been questioned from the very outset because of its perceived lack of vitality and dynamic. Calls for a more decentralised system, and even reforms in order to actualize decentralisation, were made during the 1970s

The issue of freedom of choice was more prominent in the school debate during the 1980s. Up until then the debate on education had been more about the right to an education and that was why the school system had been centralised: to ensure that all the pupils had an equal opportunity to gain an equal education. However, the issue was more focused on the right to choose an education in the 1980s. It had become easier for private or cooperative enterprises to start up private schools due to a law that was passed in 1988, and this signaled a change in the dominant philosophy of education from the idea of collective socialization and collective rights to individualism and civil rights (Englund 1993).

It would be wrong to say that the centralisation of education was a way for the government to take control, and that decentralization was the way in which the teachers and the local municipalities regained control. Actually, the opposite scenario could be argued for because teachers and various popular movements had cultivated ideas of a basic and universal school for a long time before it came into being, and the decision to decentralise came as much from above as did other reforms in education. Even though it was mentioned in the debate that the dismantling of the centralized system was in the teachers’ interests, many teachers were unsympathetic to the idea (Persson 2008).

More and more pupils reached higher levels of education in the educational system during the 1970s and 1980s. By the beginning of the 1980s almost all the pupils who completed the nine-year compulsory school went on to upper secondary school ( gymnasieskola ) for at least a year, around 40 % went on to the three or four year theoretical programs (which were preparatory for universities and university colleges), about 35 % went on to read two year programs that prepared them for a specific trade, and around 23 % joined the two or one year general and special programs. Only a very low number of pupils ended their education at the age of 16 when the compulsory part of their education ended.

Before the primary and the secondary schools were given new national curricula (in 1994), the entire economic and organisational responsibility for the schools was centralised to the National Board of Education ( Skolöverstyrelsen ). The reforms in the beginning of the 1990s not only changed the organisational structure of the education system at all levels, but also changed the grading system and marked the end of Skolöverstyrelsen . The new national agency that bore responsibility for the schools, The National Agency for Education ( Skolverket ), had a different role because the form of school management changed from regulatory management to management through objectives. Furthermore, the middle regional inspection level, Länsskolnämnd , was suspended.

The local responsibility for the nine-year compulsory school increased. The new curriculum for the compulsory school only included three sets of objectives. One set of objectives that were to be met by the fifth school year, one set that were to be met by the ninth school year and one set that no one were obliged to meet, but were objectives to strive towards. What was not specified in the curricula was how the objectives should be met and the subject matter that should be used in relation to each main subject in order to reach these objectives. This made the local governments in almost total control over the schools and what to do with government grants for education, which no longer was specified. The local governments had total control over their own budgets, with no specific instructions concerning how and in which sector that the grants should be used. However, the subjects that were to be taught were specified in the central stipulation of a syllabus for specific subjects. Furthermore, a discussion concerning the addition of an extra year of compulsory school, ended in the establishment of a new school form: the preschool class ( förskoleklass ). The preschool class was for one year and was voluntary, had the same curricula as the compulsory school and the municipalities had to make it available from 1998.

The operation of censoring, revising and approving textbooks which had been carried out within the framework of government school control also ended in 1991. Starting in 1938, the textbook revision and approving scheme had been downsized since the middle of the 1970s and since the 1980s the approving had ended and the textbook commission had taken a turn towards a reviewing service for teachers. As of 1991, the activity stopped completely.

The upper secondary school ( gymnasieskola ) was to consist of 16 different national programs, and all these programs were aimed at preparing pupils for university studies. The diversity of programs that were available was more apparent in the vocational school. There were 14 vocational programs and two theoretical programs (The Civics Program and the Science Program) that followed relatively general paths in the first year, but more diverse paths in the second. An individual program and a specially designed program were also made available. The Individual Program was available for pupils who did not qualify for any other program because they had not achieved a pass grade in mathematics, Swedish or English from the nine-year compulsory school. The specially designed program was for pupils who took part in the secondary schools’ national programs, but for some reason wanted or needed to change the syllabus in order to complete their studies.

The new gymnasieskola was a school that consisted of courses that were placed together to form programs. Different programs consisted of different combinations of subjects, but students who studied the same subject on different programs had the same course syllabus. The courses themselves were not diversified; the differentiation between the programs consisted of the courses that were chosen to make up the programs. As all the programs prepared students for university studies, eight subjects were made mandatory on all programs, and included Swedish, English, mathematics, civics and gymnastics which were read for an entire school year, and religious studies, the natural sciences and esthetical activities that were read for one semester. The subject of history was only made mandatory for the two theoretical programs, one year for the Science Program and – in most cases –two years for the Civics Program (by adding a second course History B ).

Even though the curriculum specifically called for a gender neutral approach from teachers and counselors, there was still an obvious aspect of gender recruitment in the new schools. Around 100 000 pupils were enlisted in the 16 national programs in 1996 (around 20000 pupils were also accepted to the specially designed and individual programs), and around 50% of them were female. However, the male dominance of programs that led to male dominant trades remained firm. For example, only 3 % of the pupils that were enlisted on the Construction Program ( Byggprogrammet , which educated construction workers and carpenters) were women and less than 2 % of the pupils who started their education towards a future as electricians on the Electrical Program ( Elprogrammet ) were women. At the other end of the scale, a vast majority of the pupils at the Child Recreation Program ( Barn- och fritids­programmet ) and the Health Care Program ( Omvårdnadsprogrammet ) were women (74 % and 83 % respectively).

School Today

For most pupils in Sweden, formal education begins at the age of 6 with the preparatory pre-school class year ( förskoleklass ) that comes directly before the nine-year compulsory school. All children are required to attend school from the age of 7 to the age of 16. The numbers of pupils who attend private (or independent ) schools has increased, from under 10000 in 1992 to about 100000 in 2009, which amounts to around 10% of the total amount of pupils. These schools are financed by local grants in accordance with the number of pupils who attend the school. The exact rules for this financing are under continuous review, but the local municipalities cannot favor their own, publically funded schools, which have 90 % of all students. There are a variety of schools and school forms with regards to pedagogy and authority, but most schools are governed by the local municipalities. Both the local and national governing bodies have the ambition to sponsor equality in the quality of education, and since 2003 the primary and secondary level schools have witnessed the return of a national inspection of schools.

A vast majority of pupils continue their educational careers in some form after the nine-year compulsory school. More than 95 % of the pupils continue their schooling in the upper secondary school in one of the 17 national programs (two theoretical and 15 vocational) which all qualifies students for university studies. The presence of independent/private schools is more prominent at the upper secondary school level, and in 2009 these schools attracted 20 % of the total amount of pupils at this level. Education does not stop at the upper secondary school level for many young adults. The pupils leave the upper secondary school level at around 19 years of age, and by the time that they reach 25 years of age around 45% have begun a university level education (figures from 2006).

The education policy that developed the school system has followed more general lines of ideological change and is not so much related to the changes of government. For most of the twentieth century, the aim has been to make changes in the system that have overwhelming backing from the members of parliament in order to prevent the constant changing of the system as new governments come into power. The beginning of the new century, however, saw somewhat of a change in this state of affairs. The reformation of the upper secondary school, which was proposed by the Social Democratic government and scheduled for implementation in the fall of 2007, was overturned and thrown out by the Liberal-Conservative government that won the election in 2006. This government then established their own reform that is to be implemented in 2011. The conflict is not easy to disentangle as it stretches over several fields (the overall labor market, private schools, the financing of the school system, the idea of vocational school preparing pupils for university studies, discipline in the classroom and so on) and the ideas on both sides of the argument are somewhat contradictory. However, some parallels can be drawn to the 1970s because the Liberal-Conservatives are very eager to be associated with the “knowledge-movement”.

Looking back at the twentieth century we can see parallel lines of development in the changes of the educational system. While it is not possible to state that the educational system changed from a decentralised system to a centralised one in the first seventy years of the century and then back to a decentralised system again during the last 30 years, a closer look at the centralisation and decentralisation of a few different aspects of the education system is possible.

The following aspects of the school system all show different historical features in relation to the degree of centralisation: the physical structures of schools, the educational organisation (in different paths to education), the pedagogical issues and the textbooks used in schools. Whereas the physical structures (the responsibilities for the school buildings) were fairly decentralised in the beginning of the century and totally in the hands of local government from the 1960s (and therefore never centralized), the organisation of education tells a different story. The many different paths of education that were possible to follow (in accordance with ones’ social class) in the year 1900 was centralised to basically only one path for all by 1970 (with a very small amount of differentiation in the very last part of the voluntary secondary school). Then, by changing the management of schools from regulatory to objective based, the organization of education took a decentralising turn from the 1980s and onward.

Even though there were no centralised rules, the contents of the textbooks were relatively similar during the first decades of the twentieth century. The textbook system centralised itself due to a vast amount of intertextuality. Even so, the government did take control over the contents of the textbooks with the inception of a national textbook approval scheme in 1938. However, the contents of the textbooks continued to show little difference despite the fact that the approval scheme began to loosen its grip and then ceased to exist in 1991.

One could argue that the Swedish school system was centralised during the 1960s and not before or after this decade. Calls for a recentralisation are once again being heard in the debate, but with a different agenda. The right to a decent education for the lower classes is not the main aim, but to guard the right for equal education in different parts of the country because quality can be dependent on the economy of the municipality.


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