How this Swedish school is creating a better world

An elected board with a president, a weekly general assembly – and an unwavering focus on creating a better future. Could this be some large, international institution attended by global delegates?

How this Swedish school is creating a better world
Photos: Julia Swedenklef/SSHL

Turns out, no. In fact, this describes the pioneering student Think Tank at a bilingual boarding school, nestled in a picturesque village just north of Stockholm. 

Sigtunaskolan Humanistiska Läroverket (SSHL) doesn’t just have a big name; it also invites students to think big. That means a focus on sustainability, activism and solving real-life problems. 

Former students who have gone on to achieve great things include the late Olof Palme, perhaps Sweden's best-known prime minister and again the focus of international attention.

The Local spoke with the Think Tank’s founder and two of its teenage project leaders about what they’ve achieved – and what comes next.

Students as thought leaders

During her time teaching at university, Clara Hawking saw how much young people can offer the outside world. She just didn’t think the opportunities came early enough. After she started at SSHL two years ago, the school fully backed her ambitious vision and she soon launched the Think Tank.

Like to think big? Find out how you can try life as an SSHL boarding student

“I realised we teach the students a lot of the same skills as at university but the connection with the outside world was missing,” she says. “I feel strongly that students in these age groups have incredibly valuable things to communicate and I wanted this to be student-driven.”

SSHL has around 200 boarders, many of them foreign students or Swedish nationals who join from abroad, and roughly 700 day students. Since its launch, the Think Tank has been enhancing the school’s reputation and was nominated in the ‘Future Thinking Category’ at the International School Awards 2020 in London.  

Clara has had to redraw her original five-year plan because key targets – such as forming long-term collaborative relationships with outside organisations – have already been met.

Creating change through untapped potential

The Think Tank consists of around 30 students aged 14 to 19, with diverse origins around the world. Members say they are motivated by the opportunity to bring about tangible changes for the better.

“Sustainability and finding ways to lessen our effects on our planet are why I joined,” says Julia Swedenklef, 17, the project lead for the initiative on sustainability. “Everyone is proud to be involved because it’s not something we’re forced to do but we as students help build it up.”

“It’s about untapped potential,” adds US-born Aliza Kabani, 17, who has lived in Sweden, Pakistan, Egypt and Abu Dhabi. “A wave of students have had a say on policymaking, with the climate strikes and human rights. The Think Tank is the perfect place for students to work on solutions to real-life problems.” 

Get to know life as a boarder – living and learning in a beautiful setting – before you apply

Photos: Aliza Kabani/SSHL

Proving their real world relevance 

Aliza and 12 fellow students compiled an 88-page report to help the Department of Ecology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Uppsala attract young applicants. 

It recommends more interactive classrooms, digital and smartphone content that provide authenticity, and introducing artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) as soon as possible. “It’s important to engage students in hands-on learning rather than sitting in a classroom and being lectured,” says Aliza.

“SLU told us the report was comparable if not in some ways better than the professional report they paid for,” says Clara. “This was an incredible boost to show students how relevant what we do is to the world around us.”

Aliza also initiated and is the project lead for a collaboration with TabadLab, a non-profit organisation in Pakistan. This is looking at educational exclusion in Pakistan – where 22.8million children are not in school. The Think Tank hopes to visit Pakistan later this year to interview 50 children to see how their aspirations compare with reality.

See what a try-boarding weekend at a school with humanistic principles is like – and apply now 

Focusing on the UN sustainability goals

Julia, along with her team, is focusing on a key long-term project: creating a plan on composting, water usage, electricity, and recycling at SSHL to meet the UN’s 2030 sustainability goals.

They want to see solar power, timers in showers and motion sensor taps to help students focus on water usage, as well as rainwater collection for lawns and flowerbeds. There will also be more recycling bins and more use of digital resources to save paper.

Photo: SSHL

“There’s potential to save the school money in terms of how much energy we use but it needs investment up front to save in the future,” says Julia, who has an American mother and a Swedish father. “Doing the research has opened our eyes and I’m so excited to focus on solutions that we can see the effects of.” 

Aliza believes the fall in global emissions due to coronavirus will make students even more motivated. “The earth is breathing again,” she says. “This will be a great motivating factor for students to be even more engaged about climate.”

Spreading the benefits 

The Think Tank may seem unique to this school. But SSHL wants others to benefit from its vision – and is advising schools in Pakistan and Russia about setting up their own Think Tanks.

Clara also wants to grow at home and is looking for more creative and motivated team players. Eventually, she hopes they’ll be rewarded with job opportunities from the networks they create.

She encourages the “art of the long view” to tackle problems on the horizon “in a meaningful way”. For SSHL Think Tank students, the future is theirs to shape.

Got a challenge for the SSHL Think Tank? Whether you're an individual, a company or another organisation, get in touch via this form if you want to get some of SSHL's best young minds working on a solution for you.

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by SSHL.


For members


Inquiry calls for free after-school care for 6-9 year-olds in Sweden

Children between ages 6-9 years should be allowed admittance to after-school recreation centers free of charge, according to a report submitted to Sweden’s Minister of Education Lotta Edholm (L).

Inquiry calls for free after-school care for 6-9 year-olds in Sweden

“If this reform is implemented, after-school recreation centers will be accessible to the children who may have the greatest need for the activities,” said Kerstin Andersson, who was appointed to lead a government inquiry into expanding access to after-school recreation by the former Social Democrat government. 

More than half a million primary- and middle-school-aged children spend a large part of their school days and holidays in after-school centres.

But the right to after-school care is not freely available to all children. In most municipalities, it is conditional on the parent’s occupational status of working or studying. Thus, attendance varies and is significantly lower in areas where unemployment is high and family finances weak.

In this context, the previous government formally began to inquire into expanding rights to leisure. The report was recently handed over to Sweden’s education minister, Lotta Edholm, on Monday.

Andersson proposed that after-school activities should be made available free of charge to all children between the ages of six and nine in the same way that preschool has been for children between the ages of three and five. This would mean that children whose parents are unemployed, on parental leave or long-term sick leave will no longer be excluded. 

“The biggest benefit is that after-school recreation centres will be made available to all children,” Andersson said. “Today, participation is highest in areas with very good conditions, while it is lower in sparsely populated areas and in areas with socio-economic challenges.” 

Enforcing this proposal could cause a need for about 10,200 more places in after-school centre, would cost the state just over half a billion kronor a year, and would require more adults to work in after-school centres. 

Andersson recommends recruiting staff more broadly, and not insisting that so many staff are specialised after-school activities teachers, or fritidspedagod

“The Education Act states that qualified teachers are responsible for teaching, but that other staff may participate,” Andersson said. “This is sometimes interpreted as meaning that other staff may be used, but preferably not’. We propose that recognition be given to so-called ‘other staff’, and that they should be given a clear role in the work.”

She suggested that people who have studied in the “children’s teaching and recreational programmes” at gymnasium level,  people who have studied recreational training, and social educators might be used. 

“People trained to work with children can contribute with many different skills. Right now, it might be an uncertain work situation for many who work for a few months while the employer is looking for qualified teachers”, Andersson said.