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About the Author

Daniel Nylin Nilsson
Teacher (Lund, Sweden)

I am a dyed-in-the-wool blogger from Sweden, with a few years of experience from Southeastern Europe. I have no journalistic training per se, but on the other hand blogging for me has as much to do with creative writing as it has to do with journalism. I love to write, but live from other things, like care-taking, teaching, translating etc. And maybe this is the way I want it - as a blogger nothing is more dear to me than my independence.


Education - what good does it do?

Published 09th May 2010 - 7 comments - 3631 views -

This afternoon I actually saw something interesting on TV. Rose Bukirwa, Head of News at Uganda's biggest TV channel UBC visited a Swedish school and interviewed pupils, teachers, researchers and politicians about the Swedish school system. Her conclusion was that she would not put her children in a Swedish school, and she noted that whereas Uganda is improving from year to year, Sweden is moving in the wrong direction.

Rose's judgement was based on a short visit in one underperforming school, and it made no claims whatsoever of scientific reliability. Yet it is a credible account.I think that anyone active in Swedish schools will recognize her description, and agree to some extent.

School systems have been politicized since decades, maybe even since they were invented. The idea about public mandatory schooling is as much a political idea as an educational. When people write about the introduction of public schooling, it is not so much the fervor of pedagogs like Dewey or Gruntvig, as the need of an' conformised and nation state-aware work force that stands out as important.

Since the early seventies many Swedish politicians and voters call for more discipline in school, while educational professionals talk about finding every child's way to knowledge. Since educational experts are usually slightly left wing, right wing politicians feel urged to say the exact opposite of whatever opinion they hold. Politicians repeat their calls for more discipline, which still can not be conjurred up just like that. When nothing changes, the poltical debate gets more desperate, as does the means the polticians employ.

Whereas the differences between Sweden and Uganda are huge, maybe the most interesting thing is the similarities. An ugandian MP in the program said that the fundamental problem in Uganda is that rich kids have access to a qualitative education, while the poor masses have not.

The same could be said about Sweden - our problem is not about the general quality of education, but about an increasing inequality. When schools are used against poor peoples kids in stead of for them, these kids are very difficult to motivate, and calls for discipline pass unheard. The ugandian MP was also worried that the teachers in public schools sent their children to private schools, which is exactly what is happening in Sweden, too. Teachers in general belong exactly to the anxious middle class who takes no gambles on their kids education.

The debate is bitter and tired, what was refreshing was Rose's outsider perspective. But as an insider, I was touched by her slightly naïve faith in a good education. Anyone can see that Swedish education is crippled by partisan politics. But it is hard to see any results, good or bad.

In spite of "bad" results in the OECD's PISA rankings, Swedish adults and students do not seem hampered by their education. Most of us know people with different levels of education - and quite frankly it seems like humans can do very well with a lot less of education than I have myself. Both materially and spiritually. Maybe the reason that education is so easy to politizise is that education is not so important as we want to think it is?

It is hard enough to say whether a country performs well or not. While the current government claims that Sweden is surviving the crisis better than the rest of the world the opposition claims that we are performing worse than the EU average. Today another report by the World Economic Forum was published, praising Sweden's competetiveness as the highest in the EU. In any case, the correlation with our education system seems insignificant. Finland generally scores much higher than Sweden in international rankings, but does this translate into any substantial difference in society?

As a teacher, I have had my share of disinterested pupils, and God knows that I have been cursing educational politics. But the truth is that whatever happens in school, most kids turn out all right in the end. Moreover they know this themselves, and what makes them disinterested in the first place is a feeling that schooling is not relevant to their future. It is a tough sell for a teacher to convince them that shool is important. I am not quite sure it is. Quite often it seems that everything you didn't learn in school can be learnt much easier and quicker in a different context.

Of course schools can also do a lot of things right, and for many of us it is the place where we developed into what we are. But I more and more come to think that whatever good I can do as a teacher, I do for the individual, not for society. If socety is rich or poor, if we go to war or choose peace depend on different things.

Still - it should be a matter of honour for any country to have an educational system that impresses, not disappoints, foreigners. We also shouldn't the mere joy of learning. Maybe education is not mean to get where we want, but what we are struggling to attain?

Category: Education | Tags: education, sweden, rose bukirwa,


  • Helena Goldon on 09th May 2010:

    Thanks for this post, Daniel. It obviously attracted me as a a person passionate about Uganda grin

    The most striking thing about Ugandan education I experienced, was a repetitive method that I am going to comment in one of my posts. In many cases Ugandan education lacks creative thinking and that’s why I found Bukirwa’s comments quite surprising! I wish I could see and understand the report myself - you made it very interesting smile - but I suppose it’s in Swedish :(

  • Hemant Jain on 09th May 2010:

    As always Daniel, your post is heartwarmingly real.
    You may be interested to know about our Right to Education Act in India:

    Free and compulsory education to all children up to the age fourteen is constitutional commitment in India. The Parliament of India has recently passed Right to Education Act through which education has become fundamental right of all children of age group 6-14 year.

    It’s a huge task, but the intention is right. It remains to be seen how much of a success we make it.

  • Robert Stefanicki on 10th May 2010:

    Experiments with home-schooling show that schools are not indispensable for kids. But they are practical, at least in terms of keeping kids in one safe place for a day. I have a feeling that one of the problems with education system is that it can’t keep pace with rapid technology development. A headline form today’s paper: “Why we need school if we have Wikipedia?”

  • Helena Goldon on 10th May 2010:

    I am afraid it doesn’t apply everywhere, Robert - especially that 200 thousand people in 29 million Ugandan population have access to the internet at the moment wink... ;/

  • Aija Vanaga on 12th May 2010:

    I am more concerned about politizing educational system and ‘deciders’ not listening to ‘professional advisers’ in decision making process.

  • Daniel Nylin Nilsson on 08th June 2010:

    @Helena She actually spoke English! The clip is avaliable online here (Bukirwa comes in after 25 min), but I think you can only see it in Sweden, due to licensing. I think what she did not like was the lack of discipline… and I also think that most observers tend to look more on that than creative thinking.

    @Henant Thanks a lot for the link. I am trying to read up on the Right to Education act. I twill be a tremendous undertaking for India, and the whole world will watch and learn, I think.

    @Robert I agree. Schools are of course very practical, and maybe indespensible for practival reasons. But we also run them in teh ways theat we have done for decades, and it is striking how low-tech schools nowadays are, compared to the rest of society. For good and for bad, maybe…

    @Aija - this is what I am worried about, also. And politicians usually have very many opinions about education.

  • Sylwia Presley on 25th July 2010:

    See, I do struggle with it. Education in Eastern Europe, where I grew up is more focused on general knowledge than in the UK. So I currently struggle in finding the right balance in the UK for my son. I want him to know where Poland is, but I also appreciate the more intuitive and emotional approach here, where kids learn to manage at the age of 16…

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