Educational Policies: Sweden (2014)

In Sweden, all children ages 7-16 are required to attend school. Generally, compulsory education is provided in nine-year comprehensive schools. Children are allowed to start attending primary school (i.e., grade 1) upon the request of the legal guardian. Municipalities are in charge of the operation of comprehensive schools, but the legal framework is national and applies to all schools (public as well as private). The basic rules relating to compulsory education are set out in the law regarding comprehensive schools (Skollag, SFS 2010:800) of 2010. The current curriculum, which is called Lgr 11 (Läroplan för grundskolan), was introduced in 2011.

The Swedish system of compulsory basic education dates back to 1842, when the first Primary School Code (Folkskolestadgan, SFS 1842:19) was passed. As illiteracy among the population at large was widely recognised as being a problem, providing education for the masses became a political concern for the government. However, the 1842 code did not make basic education compulsory for all children, but instead made it generally accessible by requiring that every parish provide a school and at least one teacher. The provision of primary education was thus the responsibility of the local authorities. Education first became compulsory for all children with the enactment of the Primary School Code of 1882 (Folkskolestadgan, SFS 1882:8). No specific curriculum was mandated for primary schools when they were initially established. A general curriculum was first introduced in 1878, along with a six-year period of compulsory education. Individual classes (grades) were introduced in 1864.

When the system of compulsory schooling was first introduced in 1842, it was met with little enthusiasm among the peasant population for which it was designed, or among the elite. While upper class families educated their children through home-based tutoring, members of the lower classes were not convinced of the value of general education. Children were commonly needed on the farm as helpers. School attendance was rather limited and seasonal, as many students had to travel quite a distance to the nearest school, and children of different ages were taught in a single classroom. Whether girls should receive the same education as boys—or even receive any formal education at all—was publicly debated. While elementary education was provided by the local communities and parishes, a system of private schools for girls developed alongside the public school system, as girls were not allowed to attend public secondary schools until 1927. One consequence of this dual system was that education became more expensive for girls than for boys. Thus, the social selection of girls was narrower than that of boys.

Compulsory education was gradually reformed in the late 19th century, starting with the introduction of a legal framework for the first years of elementary school (SFS 1858: 31). The school code of 1882 introduced several changes to the legal framework, but these reforms were not spread uniformly throughout the country. It also stated that teachers should be properly trained, but allowed for several exceptions to this rule. The 1921 school code (SFS 1921: 604) specified a national curriculum. The parliament decided to extend the duration of compulsory schooling to seven years (SFS 1936:305) for children ages 7-14 starting in 1937. This reform was not, however, implemented on a national level until 1949. In 1958 (SFS 1958:399) there was a reorganisation of the school system in which the schools were separated from the church, and were instead organised through regional authorities (county education boards) operating on behalf of the government. All children living in Sweden were thus obliged to attend school for seven full years. Children with special needs were provided with additional support. Another parliamentary decision in 1962 resulted in a change in the comprehensive school code (underpinned by the passage of two separate laws, SFS 1962:319 and SFS 1962:439) which extended compulsory schooling to its present-day duration of nine years. Through the introduction of the comprehensive school a unitary school system was created, and alternative schools (including single-sex girls’ schools) were abolished. A new curriculum was also introduced. The new school system was in full operation by 1971. 

From the 1970s onwards, the comprehensive school curriculum has undergone several changes, notably in 1980, 1994, and 2011. These reforms reflected contemporary ideas regarding the competences and skills the school should transmit to the students. The issue of student assessment, and especially whether students should be graded, has been a topic of debate in recent decades. These educational ideas have in turn led to reforms in teacher education. There has long been a strict separation between the educational tracks of teachers at different levels, with elementary school teachers being trained in seminars and secondary school teachers being trained in universities. From 1977 onwards, all teachers have been trained at teacher training colleges that are part of the higher education system. However, the number of academic courses each prospective teacher must take varies depending on the level at which he or she will be teaching. Both the quality and the quantity of the training teachers receive have been debated. Recently, the quality of the programmes has been the focus of discussions. At the same time, however, there is a shortage of trained teachers, and the number of non-trained personnel working in Swedish schools has increased. 

With the introduction of the comprehensive school, almost all students became eligible to attend secondary education (gymnasium), following either a (three-year) theoretical or a (two-year) vocational track. While vocational secondary education expanded dramatically during the 1960s, theoretical education has expanded to a greater extent since the 1970s. Although the upper tier of the secondary school system (gymnasium) has long had the same structure, the eligibility requirements and the feeder schools have changed. Before the introduction of comprehensive schools, students were required to attend an elementary school followed by a lower secondary school (realskola) before they could be admitted to an upper secondary school. There had long been a system of early educational tracking of children based on socio-economic background. Reforms in the 1940s were intended to make secondary education more accessible to all children. Since then, there have been further initiatives which resulted in the expansion of education. Starting in 1992/93, all of the secondary school programmes have lasted three years and have provided preparation for higher education. In recent years, the curricula of secondary education—and especially of vocational programmes—have changed. The grading systems have also changed in response to shifting views on student assessment. Currently, the question of whether secondary school should be made compulsory is being debated.

Higher education was fundamentally reformed in 1977 when several post-secondary programmes with a vocational or professional focus were integrated into the university system of higher education. As many of these programmes were female-dominated, the number of women enrolled in higher education increased dramatically. Currently, women make up the majority of higher education students. In recent decades, higher education has become more inclusive in terms of the types of programmes offered and the backgrounds of the students. One of the most important changes in the Swedish system of higher education in recent years was the adoption and implementation of the Bologna Declaration of 1999. This led to shifts in undergraduate as well as graduate education, making Swedish higher education much more international than before.

In recent years educational policy has increasingly focused on life-long learning, which is supposed to start with pre-primary education in day care. Although it is not compulsory to do so, most children move from day care to school-based care at the age of six.


Organisation of the educational system 
Pre-primary education
While there is no compulsory pre-primary education in Sweden, more than 80% of all children ages 1-6 are in pre-school day care (förskola). Pre-school is an environment in which children are expected to learn in a playful manner. The year before compulsory school, all children are offered pre-primary school care (förskoleklass), which combines the educational concepts of pre-school with those of primary school. The majority of six-year-olds participate in this school-based day care, which allows them to become accustomed to the school learning environment.

Primary education 
Primary education lasts nine years, and is compulsory for children ages 7-16. Comprehensive school (grundskola) is divided into three levels. The majority of schools are run by municipalities, but there are also independent school which share objectives, but may differ in orientation. The comprehensive school is inclusive, and many children with special needs attend regular schools and receive assistance as needed. Relatively few children attend special schools, and home tuition is extremely rare. Primary education is free of charge.

Secondary education 
No distinction has been made between lower and upper secondary education since the introduction of the comprehensive school in 1962 (effective in 1971).
Secondary education lasts three years. Almost all (98%) students who finish comprehensive school go on to secondary school. All secondary programmes prepare students for higher education, although the extent to which they prepare students for academic programmes and provide them with a diversity of choices varies considerably. Compared to vocational programmes, general secondary programmes with a theoretical focus provide students with more choices when it comes to higher education. There is an even distribution of students in general (51%) and vocational (49%) programmes (OECD 2014:314). Almost half of all students who graduate from secondary schools go on to higher education within three years. Secondary education is free of charge.

Tertiary education 
Swedish universities date back to the founding of Uppsala University in 1477. Today higher education is provided by a wide range of institutions founded on teaching and research.
In Sweden, there are 14 public universities and 20 public colleges, as well as another 17 institutions that provide various kinds of higher education. Around 90% of higher education is provided by public institutions. Currently, higher education is the largest single area of public sector spending in Sweden, amounting to 60 billion SEK per year (or 2% of Sweden´s GDP). There is an increasing tendency among universities and colleges to collaborate in order to make more efficient use of government resources.

Higher education is distinguishable from other types of post-secondary education in that it is based on the subjects taught in secondary education, and on advanced scientific (or artistic) methodologies and results. Although there are a number of professional and artistic programmes offered by institutions of higher education, they are much more academic than the primarily vocational post-secondary education programmes offered outside of the system of tertiary education.

Most higher education programmes follow the Bologna degree structure, and thus provide either undergraduate (bachelor’s) or advanced (master’s) degrees. The privilege of offering doctoral degrees was formerly reserved to universities, but has recently been extended to a number of colleges. This means that Swedish higher education is becoming more international, with an increasing degree of global recruitment. This trend that has been discernible for several years in admissions to both first and second-cycle courses/programmes, as well as to PhD programmes. Almost every fourth new student in Sweden in the academic year 2012/13 was at the higher education level. Like other kinds of education, higher education was free for all until autumn 2011, when fees were introduced for students from outside of Sweden, the EU/EEA, and Switzerland.

Another recent trend is the increasingly important role played by research in higher education. In recent years, there has been an expansion in research funding, even as there have been large variations in the numbers of places offered in different courses and programmes.


Compulsory education 
In Sweden, all children ages 7-16 are required to attend school. Generally, compulsory education is provided in nine-year comprehensive schools. Children are allowed to start attending primary school (i.e., grade 1) upon the request of the legal guardian. In certain (rare) cases, a child may be allowed to delay starting school until he or she is eight years old. Municipalities are in charge of the operation of comprehensive schools, but the legal framework is national, and is the same for all schools (public as well as private). The basic rules relating to compulsory education are set out in the law on comprehensive schools (Skollag, SFS 2010:800) of 2010. The current curriculum, which is called Lgr 11 (Läroplan för grundskolan), was introduced in 2011.

Compulsory education is regulated by the school code of 2010 (SFS 2010:800), and has undergone changes over the years. This code covers much more than the comprehensive school (i.e., it includes pre-schools, special needs schools, secondary schools, etc.). It acknowledges the existence of private schools, and applies equally to public and private institutions. It defines the purposes and goals for schooling from a national as well as an individual (student) perspective. Equal access to education and equal opportunity in education are emphasised (chapter 1). The code further states that education should be objective and free of any kind of religious/confessional influence (ch 1 § 7), and that there should be a national curriculum which every school follows (ch 1 § 11).

The requirement to attend school applies to all children residing in Sweden, and starts in the autumn of the year when each child turns seven (ch 7 § 10). Upon the request of the parents, a child can start school at six, if he or she is deemed ready (ch 7 § 11). Compulsory education implies a dual commitment from the side of the school and its chairman (public or private), and from each student and his or her parents. Education must be offered equally to all children irrespective of needs, but students are also required to attend school. The school code of 2010 provides the legal framework for comprehensive school (ch 10), as well as for special needs schools (ch 11-13), Sami schools (ch 13), and after-school activities for children in grades 1-4 (ch 14). It also provides the legal framework for accommodating the specific needs of immigrant children to ensure that they have access to educational resources and are able to fulfil the educational requirements.


Authors – Contributors
Maria Stanfors
Department of Economic History and Centre for Economic Demography at Lund University



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Legal ordinances (Svensk författningssamling):

  • SFS 1842:19 
  • SFS 1858: 31
  • SFS 1882:8
  • SFS 1921: 604
  • SFS 1936:305
  • SFS 1958:399 
  • SFS 1962:319 
  • SFS 1962:439
  • SFS 2010:800