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PathwayEd: Flexible Swedish pathways

Stuart Middleton
3 March 2011

It is very cold in Sweden which I imagine gives them a lot of time for thinking. So it was with some anticipation this week that I met with some Swedish visitors who were passing through on an educational tour. Here was a chance to learn from Scandinavian educators. Finland beats us in the PISA World Series, Scandinavia is held up as a set of countries to emulate, and any country that can give us the Nobel prizes, the celsius scale and ABBA must have something to offer. Scandinavia is often held up to us as an example to be emulated.

The Swedish group worked in a “vocational” senior college. After nine years of schooling (they start a year later than us) students can make choices about which kind of course they follow – one that takes them to the university or one which prepares them for work. But the interesting feature of this is that they do not make the split one which says academic that way and vocational over here. The students who are working towards the construction industry or the hair and beauty trade also continue their academic development in the core subjects of language and mathematics so as to make possible a shift to the conventional university at any point either while they are moving through their senior college or at some later time.

So what are they doing that enables them to maintain this flexibility of pathways for students rather than the restricted options of the New Zealand system where life chances are so comprehensively defined by early success or failure in school?

Well, one thing could be their attitude towards language. If a student arrives in a Swedish educational institution and comes from a language background other than Swedish, that educational institution is obliged by law to provide a teacher or support person who is a mother tongue speaker of that language to provide assistance. Rather than pack the NSSB (non-Swedish speaking background) student off somewhere else for instruction in Swedish or simply immerse them in this new and foreign language, a NSSB student continues to learn in their home language while developing skill in their new language. This is exceedingly enlightened. They acknowledge that this can be challenging at times but no slack is cut on this for them.

The only way a student can develop skill in a new language is to continually develop in their first language. In New Zealand our mainstream schools are cold turkey schools by and large. “English Spoken Here”, the sign that excites so many British tourists, is the prevailing approach. I wonder if we will ever realise that patterns of achievement for Maori students were driven downwards by our not recognising the importance of the mother tongue. I wonder why we are insisting that the same thing must happen to Pacific Island learners.

Another thing is that critical decisions made at age 14 about the nature of the educational programme to be followed from that point on. That age, 14 years, consistently emerges as the age at which systems that are not characterised by disengagement and the NEET phenomenon offer to students a range of pathways along which they can travel to a future characterised by success, employment and a self-sustaining life. It seems to be the point where to carry on with education that is without a clear purpose (other than the esoteric and ethereal glow of lifelong learning) is putting a group of students at risk.    

But in Sweden they are used to much greater intervention in the community and the economy by the government. Education is centrally and closely regulated and schools have to march in time to this environment. There is the closer scrutiny of the system that comes from local government. Would we have a tolerance for this after 21 years of permissive, if not promiscuous, self governing institutions?

The other area that interested me is that of attendance. Even in post-secondary schools, the institutions are simply held accountable for attendance and are required to respond immediately on the first day of absence (“immediately” they said in unison) by mobile phone, visits, contact with parents and so on. They felt that the devolution of responsibility for truancy and absences to truancy services was a quaint approach to take. I was impressed by the determined commitment of the Principal of a post-secondary institution

And on the issue of educational failure they were adamant – the institution was held accountable and it seemed that there were some financial incentives to see that students had success (for that read that they lost money when students failed I guess).

It’s easy to spend time with visitors from far away glamorous places and be impressed but I was left with a feeling that we could learn quite a lot from them.

Some final points.

They had come to New Zealand to learn from us acknowledging that we teach successful students as well as anyone in the world and had met wonderful teachers, principals and students in schools that they thought were great.

I asked: What does Finland do to beat both Sweden and New Zealand in the PISA Grand Final and the answer surprised me. Finland has, according to these Swedish neighbours, a very homogenous community – they don’t admit immigrants in any great number and it is too cold for the migrant workers that challenge many of the European systems. Finland also has few NFSB (Non-Finnish Speaking Background) people and when immigrants are allowed to settle they are pepper-potted throughout the community and so avoid having only some schools to carry all the hard work of disadvantaged communities.

Oh well, there have to be some secrets in the long dark Nordic nights

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