Will Sweden abandon the Salamanca-declaration? – Swedish liberalism and special needs

Will Sweden abandon the Salamanca-declaration? – Swedish liberalism and special needs

Once upon a time the Swedish school system was admired across the world. It was a target for what later has been labelled as ”policy-tourism”. Sweden was on top in many international comparisons and, at the same time, displayed comparatively high levels of equity. Presently, Sweden has fallen back to the average OECD-level and is falling behind as regards equity. Social background and ethnicity play a larger role as regards outcomes and where the pupil will be educated.

At the same time there are obvious signs of distrust in the system, politicians do not seem to trust teachers and only eleven percent of Swedish teachers have trust in politicians working with educational issues at the national level. Do they trust the local politicians working with these issue then? Unfortunately not, only seven (7!) percent of the teachers have trust in local politicians (The Swedish National Agency, 2016).

The educational debate in Sweden is of course full of people who have an explanation for these states-of-affair. Explanations of falling results and lack of equity involve a lot of factors, perhaps most notably the decentralisation of the school system, the introduction of markets and quasi-markets, changes in the curriculum, the emergence of new individualized teaching methods, teacher recruitment and teacher education.

At times, specific groups are pointed out as scapegoats, e.g. politicians, teachers and even professors of education. There seems to be one commonality across explanations and that is that the person doing the explaining is innocent.

However, what I want to discuss and draw attention to in this blog is a proposal by the former Swedish minister of education, the liberal party leader Jan Björklund, who in a debate article in one of the major Swedish newspapers Dagens Nyheter on April 21 presented what in the future might be a Swedish turnaround as regards inclusive education. The debate article should be seen against the background of the discussion above, thus Björklund considers “inclusion” to be a factor that explains at least part of the lowering of educational attainment.

Since Björklund, despite getting a very small percentage of the votes, has had a major influence on Swedish educational policy it seems wise to take his proposal and its possibility to influence the Swedish school system very seriously. Björklund´s party, the liberals, presently attract only about five per cent of the voters, yet it is not unlikely that he will be the new minister of education after the elections this fall. He is also the Swedish politician who to a large extent has been setting the agenda of the Swedish educational debate.


The proposal

Björklund suggests that Sweden needs more special needs classes and special schools. In his opinion” inclusion” (which he understands as the place of education) has gone too far. Children with disabilities and learning problems do not, according to Björklund, learn satisfactorily in the regular classroom.

Interestingly, he does not mention neither the Salamanca declaration nor the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, both acknowledged by Sweden, and both proclaiming inclusion.

Neither does he refer to any research thus leaving out systematic reviews that  shows the lack of beneficial effect for special placements (see examples below).


Why this now?

One can only speculate why this initiative is taken now. Björklund refers to a report from the Swedish School Inspectorate about resource schools.  The report shows good outcomes for pupils who have failed in regular schooling when attending resource schools. Now this phenomenon, as well as the arguments put forward by Björklund, are not new. The methodological approach of the Inspectorate to look at children who already have failed school is of course not a scientifically valid design to study the effect of placement, yet it can be persuasive to people not familiar with research design.

An additional factor is the re-emergence of the deficit-perspective in Sweden not least due to the widespread use of medical diagnoses such as e g autism spectrum disorder and AD/HD and pressure groups that point to the fact that regular school often do not succeed with these children.

Maybe, and this is highly speculative, is Björklund also trying to attract teachers who are not positive to the idea of “inclusion”.  Whatever the reasons, a major shift is announced.


Abandoning Salamanca?

It seems clear that the liberal party has chosen to take one step away from the spirit of the Salamanca-declaration and also the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The forthcoming election will show if this will be the path taken by Sweden as a country. In a wider perspective, it is obvious how the place and outcome of education in the Swedish system is increasingly decided by factors such as social background, ethnicity and functionality.


The Swedish National Agency of Education (2016) Attityder till skolan 2015 /Attitudes towards the school 2015/. Stockholm: Skolverket.


Examples of systematic reviews about the effect of inclusion (placement):


Canadian Council On Learning. (2009). Does placement matter? Comparing the academic performance of students with special needs in inclusive and separate settings. Series: Lessons in Learning, March, 2009. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED519296.pdf

Lindsey, E. (2007) Educational psychology and the effectiveness of inclusive education/mainstreaming. Bristish Journal of Educational Psychology, 1-24.


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