A common theme in this blog has been inclusion in schools and classrooms. It is also important to discuss inclusion at the level of the school system. I will firstly discuss some general issues in relation to inclusion at the system level before turning to the Swedish school system as an example. Sweden has been known for its inclusive policies and its inclusive school system but is that a correct image of the Swedish system? I will argue that the time is ripe to question this picture.


What characterizes an inclusive school system?

There are of course different ways to interpret what the characteristics of an inclusive school system are. One way to conceive of inclusion is that is concerns the creation of rewarding encounters between pupils with different backgrounds and abilities. Instead of sorting pupils into different groups that receive their education in separate environments, schools and classroom should according to this view mirror the diversity that is to be found in society. It should be pointed out that schools have to make such encounters a fruitful experience if we are to talk about inclusion.

Pupils with different background are thus supposed to learn from each other which would prepare them for collaboration in society. To put it differently, to sort pupils according to their socio-economical background, gender, religious background or functionality means that the prerequisite for creating an inclusive school disappears.

In an inclusive school system, e.g., newly arrived children with limited experience of schooling would subsequently be part of classes with other pupils whose parents are well-off economically and who are well-educated. When schooling is not inclusive at the system level pupils who are alike each other tend to end up in the same classrooms.

There are people who suggest that inclusion is about providing all pupils equal opportunities to succeed in the school. When a system yields differences in performance/grades between pupils due to their different socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicity, gender or functionality it is suggested that schooling is not inclusive.  These discussions are often discussed under the banner of social justice. I would suggest that both these aspects, diversity in schools and classrooms, on the one hand, and everyone´s possibility to succeed, on the other hand, are important to take into consideration when judging how specific a particular school system is.

According to this line of thought an inclusive school system provides possibilities for pupils to meet other pupils with different experiences and backgrounds and schools try to make all pupils succeed according to their abilities. However, I think it is overly optimistic to believe that we ever will see a school system where the resources of parents and the functionality of pupils will not affect the outcome of education to a relatively significant degree.

On the other hand, school systems can to varying degrees compensate for differences with regard to pupils social background and abilities. In fact, until a couple of years ago the Swedish school system was comparatively good at this. However, in recent years Sweden has fallen back in rankings at the international level on several indexes that measure the degree of equal opportunities, or for that matter, social decency.


Segregation at the system level in the Swedish school system

In Sweden today it seems to be generally accepted that pupils with intellectual disabilities enter a special educational program. Children who have been diagnosed  with intellectual disabilities and that are not expected to reach the goals of the comprehensive school are thus placed within this program if their parents do not object. Most often pupils entering the special program for pupils with intellectual disabilities receive their education in segregated classrooms that are physically located within ordinary schools.

 Moreover, sometimes specific groups are created within comprehensive schools for children with e.g. neuropsychiatric disorders and/or for pupils that are considered hard to educate within the mainstream classroom but that do not have a medical diagnosis. There are also some signs that special classrooms for pupils with language difficulties will become more important.

It is further obvious in Sweden today that people with high salaries and university degrees tend to gather in the same residential areas while people with less economical resources and/or who are sick/unemployed also end up in the same housing areas. This means that pupils to a higher degree than before will meet other pupils with similar backgrounds in the school environment.

The differences between schools have also increased. We could imagine an educational system where a massive effort is made in order to increase the educational outcomes in marginalized areas. Then the educational system would be more inclusive in terms of educational outcomes. However, this has not been the case in Sweden where differences in educational outcomes between schools have increased. In certain schools a very large portion of the pupils are according to the Swedish school law qualified for special educational support. Such a categorization in terms of special needs categories is often a way to individualize what is a genuine social problem.

Thus, regarding both the aspects that I defined as constituting an inclusive school system, i.e. that pupils from different backgrounds and with different abilities meet in schools and classrooms and that they get the best possible opportunities to learn, we can conclude that the Swedish school system has become less inclusive.

The municipality where I myself went to school during 12 years, Lidingö, situated just outside of Stockholm, may serve as an illustrative example of the development described above. In those days, the 1960- and 1970ies, there were factories and workers in Lidingö whose children went to the same schools as children with well-educated and economically well off parents. I went to a school named Skärsätra. Several of the parents of my classmates worked at the big Swedish company AGA and many of them lived in an area called Bergsätra. Today a five-room apartment in this area costs about 700.000 US dollars and the single houses where some of these working class children grew up cost about 1,2 million US dollars. This illuminates the fact that the prices of housing leads to segregation in housing which has the consequence that children from homes with similar socioeconomic backgrounds tend to end up in the same schools. The Swedish system with school vouchers seems to increase this tendency of increased segregation.


A diversity index

In social science research the notion of intersectionality has received increased prominence. It means, somewhat simplified, that different identities such as gender, social class, ethnicity and functionality interacts in relation to one’s position and possibilities in society. Today the differences between boys and girls are often discussed. From an intersectional perspective such a discussion has clear limitations. This is also applicable to my prior discussion about parents with good socioeconomic resources which has to be related to how such resources e.g. interact with ethnical background.

Anyway, I believe that it is theoretically possible to define some kind of diversity index. If we divide the population of pupils into different categories, which ones could be further discussed, we could estimate how many that would be placed in each intersectional category. We can then compare actual classrooms with this theoretically derived estimate and for each school and classroom calculate a diversity index. I think the outcome of such an analysis would be very unsatisfying for adherent of inclusive education.


Is there still a unit school in Sweden?

It is important to call things by the right name. I do believe that we should consider to talk about the Swedish school system as a segregated school system with different educational trajectories, starting from preschool, depending to a large extent on the fincancial and educational resources of  parents. It is very upsetting that some children in this way do not get a fair chance to realize their potentials.

The Swedish school system was once admired in large parts of the world. This is not the case now and the time is ripe to ask whether it still should be called a unit school.


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