Homeschooling in Sweden - Report by Deborah Markus

by Deborah Markus, one of nine articles from the special "Homeschooling Around the World" section of Secular Homeschooling, Issue #6, Spring 2009

Like many of my other articles about homeschooling in other countries, this one began with almost no previous knowledge on my part. For all I knew, homeschooling wasn't even a legal option in Sweden. And for all I knew, it was as common as pink clouds at sunset.

I'm very lucky that English is a common second language in Europe. Not only did the Swedish homeschooling sites I found have information available in my own tongue, but I was able to interview two fluent English-speaking Swedish homeschooling parents.

Homeschooling is legal in Sweden. However, it's very rare. Exact numbers are difficult to get, but according to MATS (My Alternative To School, a Swedish homeschooling association), the number of homeschoolers in Sweden is in the double digits. Lennart Mogren, a teacher in Sweden who is interested in homeschooling as a viable alternative to Sweden's public schools, puts the number at "100 kids being homeschooled." "There's No Place Like Home," a site which until recently offered information about homeschooling in Sweden, claimed that there are roughly 200 homeschooling families, about half of whom are doing so outside of the law.

Once I was able to interview some Swedish homeschoolers and learned more about the legal, cultural, and social reality of homeschooling in Sweden, I could completely understand why some would either choose or feel compelled to fly under the legal radar.

Homeschoolers in Sweden must apply for permission to homeschool every year, whether this is their first year homeschooling or their tenth. The Swedish Association for Home Education, which was founded in May 2008, has a downloadable application translated into English available on their web site. This application makes it very clear what the most common doubts and concerns about homeschooling must be in Sweden.

As is the case in America, people unfamiliar with homeschooling in Sweden seem to have grave misgivings about homeschooled children having opportunities for healthy social activity. One of the paragraphs in the application (which seems to be a suggested template for parents wishing to apply for permission, rather than a word-for-word legal requirement) includes the following sentence: "Socially, [child's name] handles relationships with children of a similar age, and older friends, and adults, surprisingly well."

There also seems to be a vast skepticism in Sweden that children can receive an adequate education at home. The application to homeschool takes it as a given that the children will "abide by the Swedish curriculum," and that there will be a certain amount of oversight to assure that this continues to be the case.

Jenny Lantz, one of the parents I interviewed, confirmed this. Although she is a strong believer in child-led education, and enjoys Waldorf-style nature-oriented homeschooling with her three children, she is also legally compelled to incorporate the national curriculum into her "school" day.

The application to homeschool also has a space for the parents to "describe how it is possible for one parent to be at home with the child in home education." "There's No Place Like Home" mentioned that one of the reasons homeschooling is so unusual in Sweden is that the tax system makes it difficult for families to be able to afford to have one parent stay at home.

Ann Anderson, another homeschooler I spoke to via email, agreed with this assessment. "Many parents have an economic problem [with homeschooling], because our society is built on the idea that both parents are working," she told me. "Who will care for the kids? The state will take care of that!"

The other reasons that homeschooling is so unusual in Sweden seem to be social rather than practical. Sadly, it's a rather vicious circle: very few families homeschool, so there's little public awareness of homeschooling as a viable alternative to public school, so very few families homeschool. Both the parents I spoke to mentioned that many Swedish people don't even know homeschooling is legal in their own country.

Ann's letter to me in reply to my call for interviews describes, as she put it, her family's "fight with the Swedish authorities":

When my oldest child started school he was happy and expectant. He was interested in learning new things. After only some months in school he totally changed. He didn't like school at all. He had been very interested in maths, and now he had no interest left. I realized we had to do something!

I searched the Internet and realized that I could homeschool! I found out that there were some families that actually did it, and that it was allowed by the law. I got so happy and we started to plan.

We applied for permission to homeschool in October 2005. We were invited to talk with the head of the "school department" in our municipality. He was trying to make us believe that we could not do this, that it was very hard. And he didn't want to help us in any way, with materials and so on, if we got our permission.

In December 2005 we received a no. We appealed against that to "Länsrätten," the county administrative court. In September 2006 we received the answer: no again. The reason was that the social training would not be good enough out of school.

Swedish law states it is okay to homeschool if "it is an adequate alternative" [to public school education]. The municipality is to examine that. And here is where the problem begins, because it is very much up to who is in charge in the municipality. In our case, we had a person that said to us that he did not like this in his municipality!

Well, we did not give up, although the kids had to go to school during all of this time. (Otherwise they can fine you, and we did not want that!) We changed schools, but it did not get better. Now we had two kids in school.

We appealed to the "Kammarrätten," the administrative court of appeal, in September 2006. There you first need a permission to be "received." In October 2007 (yes, that's right — it took over a year!), we received the permission! That was a half victory: they started to work on our case.

In March 2008, we received the answer. In the judgement they told us that in 2005, we should have had our permission to homeschool our son! It was a victory, but strange. What to do now?

I called the administrative court of appeal and asked them. They said you apply again to the municipality and they ought to listen. Okay, we thought, then we have to start all over again...

We applied in March 2008 for our two kids to start homeschooling as soon as possible. Well, it took some time; they had to investigate, they said. They went to the school where our kids had to be during this time and asked them about our kids. In June 2008 we received a no again. That's when we decided to move.

Now they said that our kids were in third and fourth grade, and the municipality meant that it was to hard to homeschool now. Besides that, the school said that our kids really needed more social training. We appealed against that decision to "Länsrätten" county administrative court again in June 2008. But we also started to plan to move. Still today, we have heard nothing at all from the county administrative court. It takes time!

I started to call different municipalities in Sweden and found a place where they said they had good experience of homeschooling families. The kids and I changed address in August, so they would not have to go back to the old school. We moved here permanently in October, when my husband got a new job.

Here the municipality has been wonderful, respectful and helping. We work similarly to a normal school, but of course with more flexibility. My kids say that the best thing with homeschooling is that they can work effectively and then have more free time to play and do whatever they like. They have always been very creative, and now they can develop that. As you understand, we have just gotten started, but we are looking forward to developing our homeschooling more and more, now that we can work in peace. That is the best. It was worth moving, and we are happy!

Just a few days after we began our email conversation, Ann was able to write a happy P.S. to her account:

"Today I received the papers from the court. They canceled our case because we moved, so that's the end of the story." No more loose ends, no more worrying and fighting.

I felt humbled as I read Ann's story, and embarrassed at the complaints I've occasionally made about California's relatively easy annual filing process. True, the application can be a bit confusing, especially if you're nervous (and who isn't, when dealing with the government — especially regarding our children?); but I've always been able to get any help I need with the process. And I've never had to ask permission to homeschool — or go to court, not just once but many times, to get that permission.

"It's been so tough to try to understand this with the law and court and so on," Ann said ruefully. "We have no training for this, but we have been trying. All for our wonderful kids!"

Jenny Lantz, whose three children have all been homeschooled from day one, had an easier time of it legally:

Well, although the situation for homeschoolers in Sweden is harsh, we had no problems to get the permission needed to homeschool. We contacted the head of schools in our municipality for a meeting, talking friendly with him with our kids present, and explaining our will to homeschool. The head of schools here is interested in new solutions and has not given us trouble. But the school that controls us has difficulty in understanding child-led education, and they control us more than we want.

Much of her next paragraph could have been written by any American homeschooler, so familiar did it sound:

When we tell people we homeschool, their first reaction is often "Is that allowed???" And then, "But what about socialization???" But then, after our explaining and talking about the subject, many people change their mind and get more positive about homeschooling. But I dare to say that EVERYONE, and especially those who know NOTHING about homeschooling, has got strong opinions about it. Many also believe that only Christian fundamentalists homeschool, because they don't want Darwin and sex education for their children.

Jenny's reasons for wanting to homeschool were very much like my own, and like those of many homeschoolers I know:

When our first son was born we felt strongly that we wanted to carry him close, nurse on demand and listen to his needs. When he grew up we felt just as strongly that we did not want him at day care, but wanted to keep him home, keeping the family together. Then we saw how much he learned by himself, and what a social boy he became, all by himself, and understood that this was his best way of learning and thriving. Then we also got in contact with families who homeschool their kids, and we suddenly knew that this was what we wanted too, and what we already do.

She went on to describe a homeschooling day that sounded a lot like mine, especially her feelings about mornings:

Our homeschooling day starts with a long breakfast. We read the newspaper (me and the eldest boy), eat, and the boys read comics. I am a slow starter and need time in the morning.

After breakfast we do some work. But we don't call it school, and most of the days, the boys decide what to do. It can be math games, writing things, or other. Before we had no scheduled time for this, but we all work better the rest of the day if we do this morning work together.

The rest of the day is play, going out in the garden, the woods, going to library once or twice a week. Or it can be more "schoolwork" (still not called so) because the children ask for it. As you can hear, we do child-led education, inspired by other families, Waldorf homeschooling, by each other, and by things around us, of course. We try to follow the changes in nature, notice special days (like autumnal equinox, UN-day, the day to do this and the day to do that...). We play many games to learn, and we make a lot of our material ourselves. But we also use library books, we buy a lot of fact books and we also use some teaching aids. We do what we like and feel for, but also some things that the school demands us to.

I asked her more about that part — what kind of demands did the local school system make on her family?

Well, the school tells us what kids our son's age do in school, and they want us to follow the same curriculum. They won't understand that homeschooled kids often "jump between" curriculums. I mean, a seven-year-old does now what a thirteen-year-old does in school, and of course the other way around — some things seven-year-old kids do in school, a homeschooled kid maybe does a year or two later. They seem to think that a child that doesn't know all the months in the first grade will never learn them. And I feel that there is no hurry with such things. They will come, I know they will. In time.

My son, for example, is a terrific reader. He reads novels for youths with great passion and understanding. But he's not so fond of writing with lower-case letters, and that is a problem for the school who does the control. But it's not a problem for me. But I think that homeschooling is so unusual here in Sweden, and people don't know how to meet homeschoolers. And the ones who control homeschoolers are afraid to do their work wrong, as there are very few guidelines for them to follow. And homeschoolers in Sweden are bound to follow the national curriculum.

It was quite an experience to realize that, out of a nation of about nine million people, the two people I'd spoken with probably constituted at least one percent of that country's homeschooling population.

Of course every homeschooling family is different, and there can be no such thing, really, as a representative sampling. But I felt fortunate in being able to learn about two families whose homeschooling experiences were so different — though like all homeschoolers, their common bond is a simple wish to give their children the best lives, the best education, and the best childhood possible.