Reducing the immigrant gap in education: What Sweden can learn from other countries

By Francesca Borgonovi
Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

For decades, Sweden has served as an exemplary model for integrating immigrants. The country’s well-developed integration system, together with its innovative and effective education sector, have helped immigrants and refugee students to feel more at home in their new country. But Sweden faced new challenges in 2015, when it began seeing a large inflow of new arrivals. More than 440,000 people immigrated to the country between 2015 and 2017, adding significant pressure to its integration system and its education sector, in particular.

Large-scale international assessments have shed light on some of the difficulties that Sweden faces in meeting the needs of immigrant students, who still lag behind their native-born counterparts in academic and well-being outcomes. According to PISA 2015, 76% of native-born students achieved the PISA benchmark proficiency levels in reading, mathematics and science, compared to just 49% of immigrant students (either first or second generation). Immigrant students are also more likely to experience high levels of schoolwork-related anxiety than native-born students (75% reported high levels of anxiety compared to 64% of native-born students).

In an effort to help Sweden narrow these gaps, the OECD’s Strength through Diversity project, in collaboration with the Swedish Ministry of Education and Research, has published a new Spotlight Report that offers tools that Sweden (and other countries) can use to build inclusive school systems. Drawing on previous OECD work on immigrant integration in education, as well as good practices used in other countries, the report provides Sweden with 20 detailed policy pointers aimed at reinforcing the capacity of its education system to support students with an immigrant background and foster social cohesion for all.

Part of Sweden’s educational performance gap can be explained by the demographic composition of its schools. Some have high concentrations of disadvantaged students, while others lack exposure to diversity. Promoting diversity across Swedish schools can make their composition more balanced, and help ensure that all students receive a high-quality education. Sweden should therefore promote lightly controlled school choice schemes that use quotas or reserves to avoid further disadvantaging certain students. The country should also implement weighted funding programmes, which provide additional funds to schools serving disadvantaged students. In other countries, such programmes have successfully delivered the resources that disadvantaged students and schools need to improve academic performance.

Strengthening diversity management can help all students feel socially and academically involved in school.

It is also important that Sweden increase teacher quality and quantity through specific diversity training and professional development to accommodate the influx of new students. Other countries have raised teacher salaries and improved working conditions to effectively attract and retain teachers in disadvantaged schools. One approach that Sweden can draw from is the Teacher Incentive Fund in the United States, which develops incentive systems to encourage teachers to work in disadvantaged schools. To better prepare teachers for diverse classrooms, the country should also provide comprehensive diversity training programmes to ensure they are prepared to teach in multilingual classrooms.

According to PISA, immigrant students who are not native Swedish speakers are less likely to attain baseline academic proficiency than their native-speaking counterparts. Given that the overwhelming majority of its new arrivals are non-native Swedish speakers, Sweden should implement more strategies to improve language support for immigrant and refugee students. Although Sweden has an early assessment plan to asses language needs, individualised learning plans for all students can better support new arrivals and follow up on their progress and needs. Integrating Swedish as a Second Language (SAS) in the curriculum and adapting it to newly arrived students could also help combat negative perceptions around learning the language.

Strengthening diversity management to promote multiple perspectives can help all students feel socially and academically involved in school. To achieve this, the country could implement a curriculum that promotes diversity, develops critical skills and challenges prejudices. Promoting inclusive, flexible education ensures that all students can benefit from a quality education. The Knowledge-centres for Mixed Schools programme in the Netherlands, for example, aims to reduce segregation in schools by creating useful ways to foster diverse school environments. A similar approach could help Sweden adapt to its recent increase in student diversity.

Our Strength through Diversity project will continue to support Sweden and its commitment to inclusive education – especially through the project’s second phase (Education for Inclusive Societies), which focuses on multiple dimensions of diversity in addition to migration. Although it still faces challenges, Sweden has the opportunity to serve as an exemplary model for how countries can adapt and build a more inclusive school system in an increasingly diverse world.

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