The Guardian: On the frontline of integration – how Swedish schools are helping refugees

Educators are trialling a range of initiatives to ensure newly arrived children do not fall through the gaps and all schools bear the pressure equally.

Botkyrka, a municipality just south of Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, is full of contrasts. The massive apartment complexes in the area’s northern suburbs, where most refugees and migrants settle, are a far cry from the airy wooden villas just 15 minutes away. The area’s schools are similarly divided; while some teach large numbers of children from non-Swedish backgrounds, others have few or none in their classes.

This contrast is becoming more stark. Of roughly 163,000 migrants who applied for asylum in Sweden in 2015, more than 70,000 of them were children. Half of those children arrived in the country alone. Swedish law stipulates that refugee children should be offered a school placement within a month of arriving – so far just 4% of schools have taken a third of the newly arrived pupils. It is feared that with some schools taking more of the strain than others, young people in the country are becoming segregated.

Some believe bussing children to schools in different areas in the region could be the answer. Not only does it help to spread the pressure on schools, but it also supports parents and children when looking for a place. Several municipalities now offer dedicated buses or free public transport passes to encourage newly arrived pupils to attend a wider range of schools.

Falkbergsskolan, a popular state school, is taking part in such a scheme. In the past, nearly all pupils at the school had Swedish as their mother tongue. But just over three years ago, the school set up a preparatory class specifically for refugees, taught in both Swedish and Arabic. The class currently has 12 pupils, all from Syria. They stay in the class for up to three terms and enter mainstream classes once their Swedish is good enough.

Roger Tillberg and Aida Zayat run the class and teach subjects in both Swedish and Arabic, so pupils develop academic knowledge and language skills at the same time. The effects of this approach have been positive.

“I love this school,” says Shahd Shalak, 15, who attends the class with her younger brother. The siblings came to Sweden from Damascus a year ago, joining their mother who was already in the country.

“In the beginning it was hard here in Sweden,” says Shalak, whose favourite subject is biology and who wants to become a pharmacist when she leaves school. “I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t speak the language and I missed my friends and relatives. Now, I really like it here. I can speak to people, I am studying, I have friends.”

Even though it is a small class, the pressure it places on the school’s resources has been challenging. “We’re into our seventh term now,” says Tillberg, “and I am exhausted. Many of the children are unaccompanied boys and their parents are either dead or still in Syria. There are no parents for us to turn to when they run into problems. Much of my and Aida’s time is eaten up by handling various social issues.”

Trädgårdsstadsskolan, the best performing state school in the region, has experienced similar challenges. Of the school’s 660 pupils, between 25% and 30% are from non-Swedish backgrounds. Although most of those children are second or third generation immigrants, two years ago the school took in four boys from Afghanistan who had arrived in the country alone.

“They loved our school and cried when they left,” says headteacher Anne Bolmgren, who suggests the experience was positive because it involved a small number of motivated pupils who shared a common language.

“As a school you need lots of additional resources to cope with integrating refugee children – the pupils need access to teachers who speak their language and some teachers might need to be prepared to act as mentors since many of these pupils have social problems and in some cases there are no parents to turn to,” she says.

Earlier this year the government vowed to introduce a number of reforms, including tutoring refugee children in their own language. The proposition is part of a migration policy agreement that has cross-party support and will come into force in August.

In principle, Bolmgren is not opposed to bussing students to schools. But she believes it is a limited, short-term solution. Bigger structural problems, such as the entrenched residential segregation, need to be tackled too, she says.

One alternative would be to introduce a quota system in all Swedish schools. At the moment Sweden’s free schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, take in a small proportion of newly arrived children. In 2014, they accepted 63% of newly arrived children while state schools accepted 80%.

Free schools are obliged to accept any child who is eligible to be educated in Sweden, regardless of where they live, as long as the school has space. But often refugee children stand little chance of getting a place due to long waiting lists. A recent government inquiry (pdf), led by Ebba Östlin, the social democrat commissioner of Botkyrka, suggested 5% of free schools’ pupils should be made up of refugee children. Following a recent government agreement, such a quota now looks set to be introduced in November.

Others argue quotas and bussing children to schools can only partially address the challenges of integration. Isak Skogstad, head of the Swedish Teachers’ Union’s 20,000-strong student network, says such measures are selective. They won’t solve other challenges facing Sweden, such as the teacher shortage, which Skogstad says is immense.

“Bussing can certainly be part of the solution but it’s hardly going to revolutionise the Swedish school system,” he says.

There are also fears that quotas will negatively affect other children. “If quotas are introduced, the children who live in our catchment area will not get into our school and pupils will need to be distributed across schools that might be far from their homes. It would be chaotic,” says Bolmgren.

Either way, schools in Sweden remain on the frontline of the social integration battleground. “Going to school here has really helped me,” Shalak says. “If you have an education and good grades, and if you study hard you can do anything in the future.”