What the failure of Sweden's schools can teach Canadians - Macleans.ca

What the failure of Sweden’s schools can teach Canadians

Editorial: Canada has long been compared unfavourably to Sweden, with its cradle-to-grave social programs. Turns out, we might be better off.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

Canadians have plenty of experience being compared, unfavourably, to Sweden. Back in 1973, we were famously told that the average 30-year-old Canadian man was in the same physical shape as a 60-year-old Swede. Sweden’s comprehensive welfare state has long been held as a marvel of income and gender fairness. And the country’s universal child-care system—which guarantees every child a spot in subsidized daycare from age one—is repeatedly presented to Canadians as evidence that our lack of a similar program ought to be considered a national embarrassment.

After decades of living in the snow-white shadow of our Nordic compatriot, however, cracks are starting to appear in the famous Swedish model of enforced equality, high taxes and cradle-to-grave social programs. In the crucial area of schooling, in particular, it looks as if it’s now Canada’s time to shine.

Over the past decade, the Swedish school system has performed abysmally when compared to its international peers. The problem is so acute, the government asked the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to investigate; it released its assessment this week. “Sweden’s student performance has declined in all key domains of literacy, numeracy and science, from above or around the OECD average to below the OECD average,” the organization says. Since 2000, no country experienced a steeper drop in math test scores for 15-year-olds than Sweden. Despite the fact that Sweden spends considerably more than the OECD average on schooling, its share of poorly performing students has steadily increased, while the percentage of top performers has fallen by half.

Beyond test scores, Swedish students also display a troubling unwillingness to learn. “Sweden had the highest proportion of students who arrived late for school among OECD countries,” the report notes. The country also has a higher than average record of class disruptions and disorder. All this classroom chaos is discouraging teachers, as well. Nearly half of Swedish secondary teachers say they’d pick a different profession, if given the opportunity for a career do-over.

In recommending how to turn around the Swedish school system, the OECD leans heavily on Canada. Part of Sweden’s problems may lie in the sudden influx of immigrants into what was once a very homogeneous country. Canada, by comparison, is recognized as a world leader in coping with the challenges of a diverse and polyglot student body. In establishing ambitious goals to improve numeracy and literacy, Ontario gets particular mention in the OECD report. As for the malaise felt by Swedish teachers, the report points explicitly to “high-performing school systems, such as Canada’s and Finland’s” for advice on making teaching a valued occupation.

Beyond any welcome sense of validation Canadians may feel in finally topping Sweden on an important matter of social policy, however, the rapid decline of the Swedish school system also offers some important lessons about hot-button topics currently under debate here, as well.

Sweden envy remains a powerful political force in this country, particularly in the lead-up to October’s election. Federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has vowed to create his version of Swedish daycare: one million regulated child-care spaces by 2018. And Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau made Swedish-style income redistribution an explicit goal, with his announcement this week of a plan to create a new tax bracket for those earning more than $200,000 a year, in conjunction with a tax break for the middle class.

Yet the ballyhooed claim that universal child care is necessary to both properly prepare toddlers for the rigours of school and equalize outcomes for all has clearly come a cropper in Sweden. The result of multiple generations of participants in an idealized and very expensive universal child-care system appears to be a Swedish student body defined by below-average test scores and atrocious classroom manners. So where’s the benefit?

Even more striking, OECD investigators suggest that Sweden’s fixation on reducing income inequality could actually lie at the root of its failing school system. The combination of high taxes and generous social payments “may not provide sufficient incentive for learning and working hard,” the report states baldly. “The importance placed on equality in Swedish society may have had the unintended effect of not challenging all students sufficiently. Parents would seem to play a role in this by overprotecting and nurturing them too much, and insufficiently challenging them when they grow up.” By insisting on equal outcomes for all, the Swedish welfare state appears to have inadvertently sapped the will to succeed on the part of students and parents alike.

That said, it’s not all bad news for Sweden’s school system. The OECD says students are above average at learning English as a second language. It’s a skill that might come in handy.


What the failure of Sweden’s schools can teach Canadians

  1. LOL the preceding was a paid political announcement by the Con Party of Canada.

  2. Bull patooties! What a load of you know what. Finland is the counter example that disproves this . . . notion.

  3. Sound like an article written to dispell any notions or Ideas of how a utopian society might begin to function , Can’t have all that social equality. Nooooo its no good…it won’t work here…shhhhhhhh that stuff sounds like work and it might cost money….

  4. LOL I don’t think I could write a more self-contradictory article if I tried. Sweden’s poor academic performance is due to recent immigration. No, wait, it’s due to decades long coddling from cradle to grave.

    I guess no rich kid’s initiative was ever sapped because they knew they were going to inherit Daddy’s company??

  5. A bunch of suppositions with absolutely no real analysis. A complete waste of reading time.

  6. I would make my kid misbehave for more parent teacher conferences…
    I was asking a baseball fan from out of town if my small biz ideas are good ones. He said if he were a small business person, he wouldn’t give away his ideas. He also explained no bankers in NYC would understand how to give effort. He said Winnipeggers had to survive the elements just to survive. And that the pyramids surviving is useless except it demonstrates a mistake, and that people had the same wishes back then; to avoid death. He said when you earn your way through effort, you expect the people you trade your money to to do likewise. And that reading is effort. And when you learning to give effort and are rewarded, that becomes a conscious and unconscious strategy. Just passing the msg, have my critiques of it.
    That is why dumb people in dumb regions are self conscious.

    • Mmm….and the crow flies at midnight.

      • …no but I’ve heard owls just like skeletons cartoon. Part of it is immigration. In Jr High I could never beat all the private-schooled smart Canadian kids whose parents were born in China in Provincial math contests; we attracted the some of China’s best. I’m working on a very basic humanities curriculum for community colleges. Maybe only a 4-8 hour course that exposes new Asian immigrants to the heroic meme. They said Marlowe was happy his work would live on…Shakespeare with better plots but less poetic, and Spencer even more so. MLB fan was hard on NYC bankers because their upbringing is all the same. The conversation was about work too, and that hrs don’t equal excellence. Everyone tells Grover to get a job. But some people waste all their time, recant crappy not red-text Bible books every Sunday wasting even more time to get time…if they don’t know how to excel all they have is time and many people think others must suffer or they feel their own waste of time is useless…
        Sweden is probably like NYC bankers with everyone having the same background. I had lots of Asian immigrant friends in school but none who came here as adults as they never learned to excel.
        They told me sometimes short-term memory loss is an artifact of contact technology. They told me it would help to have a carbon tax. They told me Harper in tar sands in his formative yrs is no good as we need a livable climate. Where Sweden is much stronger than us is they don’t have a leader scared enough of his own potential oblivion to champion freedom of religion. I’d guess daycare is a good investment and much of Europe is scared to be heroic: Greek City States fought eachother, didn’t let the 300BC atheist’s teachings survive…
        In that curriculum every adult should have, I like teaching about the last Roman who instructed Monks to copy works 550AD, Charlemagne who made those Monasteries copy, the Chastity Book of the Fairie Queene (Britomart is a female knight), Edward the II (demonstrates varying degres of leadership under Monarchy), personally I like a Midsummer’s Night Dream…the Scottish Enlightenment…they said the Greeks made philosophy a science.
        Macleans doesn’t seem to understand at all daycare is very good if your parents are not. It makes Parliament shooters less likely and MLB fan said kindergarden is a good time to start mental illness screening. 2 hours for me to read a few daycare papers from google scholar. Who ever wrote this column is not excelling.

        • Wow, this is one of the worst articles ever. How do parents nurture and over-protect their kids if they are sending them to daycare during the day-time?
          It was Charlemagne who invented our modern curriculum by making those Monasteries teach. As in Greece, the Irish area Celtic culture was already vibrantly well established before Romans brought literacy. Their main failure was in reciting some of their odes and sacred tales, it was not permitted to write down the tales. I think the blend of UK/Normandy-Celtic religion and Christianity would have produced a religion good enough that I would convert as an adult even though I’d still believe it is more important to be a good person than follow rules that were established before modern science. I think it was Democritus that figured out the scientific method well before R.Bacon. Much like the Catholic Church editted Marlowe, the Greeks couldn’t take the truth and went with a mild version of it in the form of Aristotle’s teachings to sometimes use a little bit of empiricism.
          I think it would help to have a full university curriculum in as many places as possible. In Northern Prairies where demographics suggests university is cheaper than prison for example. I enjoyed daycare but didn’t really need it as my father got hired when I was born. But he developed a gambling problem that would’ve been devastating to my health and criminal record about 8 years after I attended daycare. The daycare would’ve been my only hope in such an event.

          • They also said the earthquake would’ve happened 1 or 3 yrs later (not an exact science). And that I’m a better person for being tested…In daycare, I liked the sandbox and the piano to play Mary had a little lamb. When not in daycare, I watched crappier people play my Atari. I watched the Friendly Giant and the Muppets and Sesame St.. Not bad but daycare was more stimulating. It was the best public school division’s grade 1 math testing, speed division and for me multiplication, that clued me in a could be a leader. When I wasn’t in daycare, I was playing with cars in the sandbox cutting up pieces of dried cat shit…for shame, Maclean’s.