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A school for everyone?: the Swedish school system's struggles to reconcile societal goals with school and classroom practices.

A school for everyone means that all students should have access to and receive an equivalent education.... Inclusion means to participate in the whole. Teaching should therefore occur within the framework of the ordinary class; social feelings of solidarity and time together are prioritized, and differences between children are accepted and respected. In this perspective, differences between remedial and ordinary teaching are small and demand that all teaching personnel are able to teach all children. (The Swedish National Agency for Education [Skolverket], 1998, p. 3)

Is the above ideal the reality in Sweden today? I will use findings from ethnographic research to try to answer this question. From January to June of 2004, I conducted research in and near Stockholm, Sweden, to study the link between societal values and classroom practices vis-a-vis the early childhood special education (ECSE) system in Sweden (1). Specifically, I wanted to see if and/or how societal values were reflected in teachers' classroom practices, as schools tend to embody the deepest values and beliefs of the mainstream culture.

I observed four preschool classes, two lst-grade classes (one Englishlanguage, one Swedish), a class for children with autism (6-14 years), and two 3rd-grade classrooms (one English-language, one Swedish), all in the Stockholm area. I also visited a special school for children who are deaf/ hard of hearing and who also have "severe learning disabilities," as well as a Resource Centre serving 9- to 15-year-old children with disabilities approximately an hour from Stockholm; these programs were attended by children from all around the country. I interviewed all the teachers in whose classrooms I observed, as well as a 3rd-grade general education teacher at a bilingual school, a resource room teacher for the Swedish side of a bilingual school, and four professors or lecturers at Lairarhogskolan i Stockholm (the Stockholm Institute of Education--SIE).

Furthermore, I interviewed a parent of a child with ADHD, collected and translated two months' postings to a listserv for parents of children with disabilities, and spoke with two administrators of sarskolan (a separate type of school for children with learning disabilities or mental retardation) in Stockholm. Last, I read Swedish government and agency documents and research reports and gathered general information on Sweden and Swedish schooling from the Stockholm City newspaper, observations of life and schooling in Sweden, and conversations with anyone willing to talk with me about the education system. The information gained through these sources is presented here to provide a picture of inclusive education in Sweden. Additionally, the data will be used to respond to five questions stemming from the 1998 Skolverket statement presented at the beginning of this article.

Swedish Education Policies

The Swedish commitment to young children and their families was noted throughout a recent report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 1994). The Lpo 94, the preschool curriculum document, begins with strong statements that reflect deep societal values: democracy, solidarity, the value of each child, individual freedom and integrity, equality between the genders, and respect for all human life and the environment. The document continues to explain that theoretical and pedagogical understandings of childhood permeate policy and practice. A commitment to democratic ideals exists in the way children are inducted into the system; a commitment to solidarity exists in that the system is deeply concerned with the well-being of all youngsters, among them children with disabilities or recent immigrants. The document further states that there is a full appreciation for who children are and who they will become.

Further, according to the Swedish Institute for Special Needs Education (SIT, n.d.), everyone is entitled to a high-quality education and everyone must be given the same opportunities to meet the national educational objectives. The municipalities must provide those with disabilities an education equal to the education received by others in the community. The Swedish National Agency for School Improvement (Myndighenten for Skolutveckling, n.d.) notes that every member of Swedish society is expected to learn and develop in his or her own way.

Yet, converting commitment and policies into practice is never a simple task. Historically, Sweden has strongly supported democratizing education, yet continues to support separate schools for children with learning disabilities, mental retardation, autism, or brain damage. While the possibility of children who are eligible for special schools to attend a regular school has increased in compliance with international agreements (e.g., UNESCO, 1994), decentralization and increased pressures placed on the system sometimes yield inconsistencies in practice. Despite good intentions and the regulation of integration, the number of children enrolled in special units increased by 62 percent between 1993 and 1999 (Westling Allodi, 2002). Thus, contradictions exist in the Swedish school system regarding attitudes toward and policies for pupils regarded as having learning disabilities, leading to different treatments and, sometimes, marginalization or discrimination. As we shall see, this is especially true with regard to compulsory schooling.

Challenges Around Putting Policies Into Practice

Sweden is clear about its values and how they should be addressed in the classroom/school. For example, multiple government documents explicitly state that all pupils, irrespective of gender or social/cultural/ linguistic background, shall be supported in their educational endeavors (e.g., National Agency for Special Educational Support, n.d.; Skolverket, 1998). Lpo 94, the curriculum document for the compulsory school system, the preschool class, and the leisure-time center, states, "The inviolability of human life, individual freedom and integrity, the equal value of all people, equality between women and men, and solidarity with the weak and vulnerable are all values that the school should represent and impart" (Lpo 94, 2001, p. 5). In general, diversity is considered in a positive light, at least rhetorically; people speak in terms of differences rather than deficits. The focus is shifting from the individual to the social context, in a recognition of the social nature of handicapping conditions.

However, some challenges remain in terms of connecting intentions with practices. For instance, in the documents cited above, children with disabilities are discussed separately. Further, Swedish schools are increasingly constrained by fiscal shortages, schooling is increasingly oriented toward testing and cross-school comparisons, and school control is increasingly localized. These constraints challenge the claims made and make it difficult for values and practices to align. In the following sections, teachers and parents address these constraints related to the experiences of children with disabilities in schools.

Challenges Specific to Inclusion

If there is to be "a school for everyone," children with disabilities obviously must be included. However, as is true in many countries, Sweden is facing a number of struggles over inclusion. One lecturer in special education at SIE believes the main obstacles to inclusion in Sweden are teacher attitudes and beliefs; teachers sometimes do not see the advantage of inclusion and sometimes lack the knowledge or competence to work with children in need of special support (2). She also noted that the teacher shortage challenges the goal of achieving equal education for all.

Another special education lecturer at SIE, who is originally from the United States, agrees that inclusion can be a challenge, because few teachers have experience with it and children who are physically included often are not really full members of the classroom. And two primary-level teachers at a bilingual school (one originally from the United States, one a native of Ireland) told me that Swedes want all children to feel a part of the group; they are just not sure how to do this, given existing constraints.

A professor at SIE said Swedish educators start with the intent to include all children, but noted that special classes and schools are available, too. She also cited a lack of resources as an obstacle to inclusion (3), but added decentralization of practices versus government mandates, the increasing emphasis on national testing, and a fairly significant immigrant population as further complications. She also noted that social and academic goals are often in conflict; and teachers and schools sometimes feel they have to emphasize academics at the expense of socialization.

Further, this professor pointed out that headmasters (in the United States, these would be principals) face a conflict between concentrating on general resources, which implies smaller classes and fewer teachers for all children at the expense of special resources, or concentrating on specific efforts with proportionately more remedial teachers and larger groups. Thus, the headmaster's (or mistress's) role is crucial: She or he can say, "We will cater to all children," and thus create a school where the way in which the school works for all becomes the concern of all. If s/he does not take this approach, teachers then often send "those kids" to the special educators and put aside their concerns.

Classroom and School Practices

Here, I will present additional data specifically in response to the 1998 Skolverket statement on inclusion presented at the beginning of this article to try to ascertain if, in fact, Sweden provides a school for all preschool to 3rd-grade children. As mentioned earlier, the data come from interviews, postings on the listserv for parents, review of government documents, and observations.

1. Does teaching occur within the framework of the "ordinary class"? Yes and no. In Sweden, the government makes "recommendations" so that sometimes the placement becomes the plan (e.g., a child is put into a smaller class). The guidelines allow for more flexibility, but may increase tensions between general and special education, as no clear directions are provided.

One teacher told me that the preschool year is a good time to identify children who are struggling and to put supports in place. She contended that parents have a large say in their child's placement but felt that the resources available are also factors in what kind of schooling is provided. One parent, whose daughter had been included for all her compulsory schooling, said their experiences had been quite positive, writing, "We feel that the school has done its best to meet our daughter's needs and that the contact between home and school has been good." Most parents were not so positive and chafed at their lack of power. One parent's comment echoed a theme frequently found in the online postings: "The thing is, if you enroll your child in a special school, you as a parent do not have the legal right to decide where the child is placed. It is the school's principal who makes the final decision."

In sum, as one parent put it, if the student is lucky, and the principal and teachers are interested and value inclusion, then there is a chance the student in an ordinary class will receive appropriate adjustments and find a sense of community. If the student is unlucky, then regular school can be just as segregated as special school and may give poorer instruction.

2. Are social feelings of solidarity and time together prioritized? Again, it depends. Socialization to the group is strong, especially when children are just starting their compulsory schooling (grades 1-3, Lagstadiet). A lst-grade teacher said that children with disabilities are supposed to be included in the general education class ("although not always, of course"), because it is good for the group to support the individual child. On the other hand, an unhappy parent writes that her daughter (with Down syndrome) is often alone or with her aide only.

At a Stockholm city school with a special class for children on the autism spectrum, one of the two lead teachers told me their children "are included, but with adult support," and that they "belong to" the school. However, I did not see much evidence to support her statement. For example, this class ate lunch at a different time than the others, and my observations, as well as teachers' comments, indicated that children in this class did not interact with the other children on the playground. The teachers said the children feel good about their schooling but are often lonely. Again, inclusion is generally believed to be a good idea, but many challenges hinder efforts to have a school for all children. "It's a nice idea," one teacher said, "but it doesn't often happen."

3. Are differences between children accepted and respected? Sometimes they were, especially in preschools. For instance, at a Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool in a suburb of Stockholm, the teacher provided two examples of how teachers addressed children's difficulties in "Reggio-like" ways. At the other Reggio-influenced preschools, the teachers had a similar response. One said, "We all think, but differently, and that's okay. Some just see the world with different eyes."

Things were different once children started compulsory schooling. The teachers in general education classes struggled to include the children who needed more, but often felt like they were not doing/could not do enough. Again, most parents' perspectives were not positive. Some noted that teacher expectations of children with disabilities are too low, and they felt that teachers lacked confidence in their children. Several believed that some teachers see their child as a distraction to the other students' learning.

In summary, differences between children were sometimes accepted and respected; other times they were not. This seemed to depend on the setting, the individual teachers, and the ages of the children.

4. Are differences between remedial and ordinary teaching small? It appears Sweden is trying to limit differences between teaching in general education and special education. At one school for children with severe impairments, the goal is to "provide [an] . . . education ... that corresponds, as closely as possible, to that in ordinary compulsory schools and programs for children with learning disabilities" (J. Lindberg, school administrator, personal communication, June 4, 2004). Since classes were not in session, I did not get to see if the practices matched intent. Some rural areas of Sweden do not have any special school. While this situation is primarily the result of the need to save money, it does give children with disabilities a chance to be and learn with typically developing children. For instance, the staff adviser at the primarily residential Resource Centre told me that, given the push in Sweden toward inclusion, as well as government concerns about the costs of residential programs, the school has been in the process of being phased out over the past two years and is working on the transition to homeschool support for the students. Based on observations in two classrooms and conversations with staff, it appeared that the teachers were trying to ensure that differences between remedial and ordinary teaching were small, perhaps in response to pending changes.

A resource room teacher aptly summed up the dilemma of difference in Sweden in saying, "School is a mirror of society. I think the society has become [squarer] in their way of thinking. Everybody [has] to fit in, and if you do not, then you have a problem." How this "problem" is addressed is the crux of the matter, then. It appears the intention is to reduce or eliminate the differences between remedial and regular education teaching; this is often difficult, however, because not all children "fit in" with curriculum and school expectations.

5. Are all teachers able to teach all children? Virtually all the data, with the exception of the positive parent comment cited in response to question one, indicate a negative response to this question. In talking about the demands placed on teachers to teach all children, an SIE lecturer noted that Swedish teachers are overworked and not expected to keep current professionally. She also thinks that teacher preparation in special education is limited. (4) Teachers can take continuing education courses, but that means they need time and reimbursement from schools.

A professor at SIE said that all teachers should have, but do not always get, certain basic special education knowledge, and also thinks teachers need special preparation to work with children with specific disabilities. The posts to the listserv for parents spoke to this, too. They found it troubling that many teachers were lacking in experience, training, and supports, but still have the authority to "sort students out of" certain lessons.

On the English side of the bilingual schools, finding teachers prepared to work with all children seemed to be especially challenging. A 3rd-grade teacher noted that it was hard to find English-speaking teachers with special education preparation. The teachers at one bilingual school believed that the government has recently started attending to children with special needs in a focused way; furthermore, the two American women interviewed thought that Swedish awareness and, hence, its policies and practices, are far behind those in the United States. Without assessing a large number of teachers' actual practices, it is impossible to say if all teachers are capable of teaching all children. However, it is clear that this is an area of concern for many.

What Are the Implications of These Findings?

At least two implications from the findings need to be discussed. First, educators need to carefully look at both societal policies and classroom practices to see if contradictions exist between values and practices, claims and conditions (Skrtic, 1995). Second, we need to be aware that the ways in which societies construct their concept of children have direct implications for children's care and education. In Sweden, it seems there is a still-evolving concept of who children with disabilities are; hence, policies and practices are in flux.

The teachers, professors, and parents in this study had some thoughts about the evolution of early childhood special education in Sweden. One professor was not sanguine about the future of education in Sweden, saying fewer teachers are getting special education training, research is not drawn on in practice, and the media tend to present political and ideological, rather than educational, perspectives. She also mentioned the increasing number of at-risk children in the school system and all the probable reasons for that (e.g., immigration, poverty, more children staying in school longer, more premature babies, and so forth). Hers is a pessimistic take on claims being translated into positive conditions.

One classroom teacher I talked to was more positive. She said that, so far, their class has not lost any resources, although it is possible that they will. In terms of the future, they hope for more respect and resources and think society is getting back on track with regard to values. I asked three preschool co-teachers about changes in Swedish education over the past 10 years; all noted the impact of decentralization and scarcer funding. These teachers predict less money for education; higher expectations of teachers; more awareness of education by parents, the public, and politicians; and many school reforms.

Parents had some thoughts about future directions as well, often drawing attention to the issue of how children with disabilities are seen and educated in Sweden. One wrote, "Who wants to ... has the energy to ... be in a constant state of war? And yet, it's totally necessary for one's own child and for future students to draw a line in the sand!" Similarly, most of the parents' posts to the listserv that addressed their struggles to have their children included in a positive way noted that if they fought hard enough, they could effect change.


In conclusion, societal struggles around inclusion are reflected in the schools' practices and in teachers' and parents' comments Swedes want to include all children but have a hard time helping children who are in need of special support belong to the whole and participate fully. In spite of the rhetoric and the general orientation toward democracy, solidarity, and participation, Swedish schools are not for everyone, especially after the preschool years As one parent asked, "So, what is this 'school for all' that we speak of? How much is the law that gives you the right to go to ordinary school really worth the way things work today?"

Gustavsson (1999) claims that Sweden is moving toward a more general human rights orientation that is focused on autonomy for all citizens. If he is right, despite the data contradicting this direction, and I hope he is, then maybe all children will be included as a matter of course and "a school for all" will become the reality in Sweden Of course, societal values and goals in all countries affect what happens in schools and classrooms, and the situation is Sweden is not unlike that in the United States, Ireland, and no doubt, many other countries as well. Despite political, social, and economic constraints, educators and parents who support inclusive education can work together to ensure that all students have access to, and receive, an equivalent education Learning about the challenges faced and successes achieved across the globe can help us move toward an education system that allows all children to participate in the whole.


Gutavsson, A. (1999). Experience-near perspectives on disabled people's rights in Sweden. In F. Armstrong & L. Barton (Eds.), Disability, human rights, and education: Cross-cultural perspectives (pp. 149-160). Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

Lpo 94. (2001). Curriculum for the compulsory school system, the pre-school class and the leisure-time centre. Stockholm: Ministry of Education and Science in Sweden and National Agency for Education.

Myndighenten for Skolutveckling (The Swedish National Agency for School Improvement). (n.d.). Improvement through interaction. Retrieved February 7, 2004, from www.

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. (1994). The integration of disabled children into mainstream education: Ambitions, theories, and practices. Paris: Author National Agency for Special Educational Support. (SISUS; n.d.). Overview. Retrieved March 18, 2004, from www. 1/29/2006

Skrtic, T.M. (1995). Disability and democracy: Reconstructing (special) education for postmodernity. New York: Teachers College Press.

Swedish Institute for Special Needs Education (SIT). (n.d.). An introduction to the Swedish Institute for special needs education. Retrieved February 28, 2004, from www. Equal+worth

Swedish National Agency for Education, The (Skolverket). (1998). Students in need of special support. Retrieved March 22, 2004, from

UNESCO. (1994). The Salamanca statement and framework for action on special needs education. Paris: UNESCO.

Westling Allodi, M. (2002). Support and resistance: Ambivalence in special education. Stockholm: Stockholm Institute of Education Press.


(1) As I was told a number of times that "there's Stockholm and then there's the rest of Sweden," the findings reported here do not necessarily apply to the whole country.

(2) The difference in wording between this phrase and what is typically used in the U.S., "children with special needs," is, I believe, more than a semantic difference In the Swedish wording, the emphasis is on the environment, that is, what the school and state need to do; with the U.S. term, however, the emphasis is on the child in need of remediation. This difference speaks directly to the theme of identity: How is the concept of the young child constructed by the society?

(3) A lack of resources was a recurrent theme For example, a 3rd-grade teacher on the English side of a bilingual Stockholm school told me, "They've had to eliminate everything [but] the very basics. ..and having resource teachers apparently is considered [an] extra." Identifying another dimension of the limited resources issue, a professor said that parents' purported choices are often forced. That is, the school will say, "We do not have the resources here, but if your child were to attend school X, then we could provide the services s/he needs." The parent postings supported this view, as they frequently noted that parents usually do not have a say in where their child is placed. In sum, choice was often limited because resources were limited.

(4) According to the 1994 OECD report, Sweden needs to address the question of continued teacher training so as to upgrade and maintain quality staff in the service of young children. More specifically, a 1988 parliamentary decision calls for all compulsory school teachers to receive the equivalent of a half term of study in special needs education in their teacher education programs. Because it is not mandated, however, some institutions (e.g., SIE) choose not to make it a requirement. However, SIE does offer special courses that students outside of special education can and do take.

Leigh M, O'Brien is Associate Professor, Ella Ctine Shear School of Education, SUNY Geneseo.
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Author:O'Brien, Leigh M.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Aug 15, 2007
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