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What to expect when your child starts school in Sweden

What to expect when your child starts school in Sweden
What a Swedish classroom may look like. Photo: Ann-Sofi Rosenkvist/imagebank.sweden.se
Having a child start school is an emotional day for any parent, particularly if you live outside your home country. Thankfully, in Sweden school starts rather gently. Here's what to expect.

This article talks about starting school in general. For news on the coronavirus in Sweden, click here.

When do schools start in Sweden? 

It varies depending on the municipality, but this year most of Sweden starts this coming week. 

What age do most children start school? 

The school year in Sweden starts in autumn and schooling in Sweden is compulsory for all children over the age of six. This means that all children who are six years old, or who will turn six before the January 1st after the school year begins, are required by law to attend.


This is a picture from 20 years ago of the first day of school in Sweden. It still looks the same. Photo: Jan Collsiöö/TT

What is pre-school class or nollan

Children in Sweden spend their first year in a pre-school class, förskoleklass, f-klass or in many schools informally called nollan, meaning ‘the zero one’. The emphasis during the first year is on training children in school routines, getting them used to sitting in a classroom, and making them see school positively.

This can be frustrating for international parents who see children the same age in their home country busily learning to read and write. Children in nollan in Sweden are often taught just one letter of the alphabet each week, so it starts very slowly. If adult Swedes are anything to go by, they do catch up, more or less. 

How do classrooms work in Sweden? 

School in Sweden is less formal than in many countries, with children taught to call their teachers by their first names. Normally children should raise their hand if they want to say something in the middle of a lesson. The lessons are a mix of teacher-led, group and individual activities. 

What if my child is arriving in Sweden in the middle of their education? 

If your child has come from abroad in the middle of their education and doesn’t speak Swedish, you can contact your municipality. In Malmö, for instance, there’s a municipal unit managing school applications for new arrivals.

The unit will assess first if the child has the right to attend school, and then show the parents how to register, which is done online and requires both parents to have a personal number and BankID.

After the parents have made their choice of school, the municipality will then assign them a place at a school (perhaps not the first choice).

The unit, provisionally called School Start Malmö, assesses the child’s language abilities and educational level, and the school then has responsibility for arranging tuition so they can join normal classes as quickly as possible. 

Students who do not speak Swedish can also apply to an English-language international school, some of which are run by municipalities and some of which are private. 

Some municipalities will offer preparatory classes where students receive a crash course in Swedish before they are assigned to a school. This was particularly the case during the refugee wave of 2015 and 2016.

If you are arriving in Sweden from abroad and your child already speaks Swedish, you can apply for a school using the normal municipal school choice system. 

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What do I need to do to prepare for the school start? 

You will probably have been given or sent a series of questionnaires at the end of the summer, which you should either have already sent in, or else should bring with you when school starts. This will include questions on health, dietary requirements, and languages spoken at home. If you fail to send this, or lose it, don’t worry. They school will eventually chase you up for answers. 

What clothes does my child need? 

Sweden doesn’t really do school uniforms, but that doesn’t mean you should skim over this question. Parents who have had children at a kindergarten will know the drill, but for new arrivals in Sweden, it’s important to get your children the right clothing. 

That means gumboots for rainy days, snow boots for freezing snowy ones, rain jackets and trousers, and winter thermal trousers. The thermal overalls kindergarten children get kitted out with are just about acceptable for the preschool class, but by the first class children might feel they are too babyish. 

A back pack, ideally with comfortable straps, and a water bottle is also required. 


Older pupils at a Swedish secondary school with computers. Photo: Alexander Olivera/TT

How should I prepare my child? 

Most schools hold a gathering at the end of the summer for the next year’s new pupils, which is a good way to help prepare your child. If you are sending your child to your local school, it’s worth spending time in the school’s playground when it is closed and on the weekend, so they can get used to the environment. 

If you know other children who are either already at the school, or who will be in your child’s class, it’s a good idea to meet up with them in the summer so your child has someone to latch on to. 

What if my child has special needs? 

If your child is sensitive, shy or finds change difficult, schools in Sweden are normally understanding, often letting parents sit in with their child at the start of the preschool class.

If your child has been diagnosed with a learning difficult or neuropsychiatric disorder such as autism or ADHD, they are entitled to extra resources, which the school can provide out of extra funding they receive.

Many schools, sadly, require a bit of pushing to do this, with some parents even having to take their schools to court. 

In some cases, a child can have a personal assistant, who helps them navigate the classroom and playground environment. 

Often schools only start to provide special needs teachers in Class One, when the emphasis is on learning to read, write and do basic mathematics. 


A teacher meets a new pupil at the start of the school year. Photo: Jan Collsiöö/TT

What happens on the first day? 

If your child is joining nollan, the school day will normally start with a samling or ‘gathering’ outside where the class teacher and their assistant, often holding signs with the class name, will meet the new class and their parents, and hold some sort of ceremony, such as releasing air balloons into the sky. Due to coronavirus, most schools will probably this autumn not include parents in this ceremony. 

Be prepared to lose coats, shoes and well… everything! 

Don’t get too attached to your kids’ clothes (and ideally avoid stocking up on expensive Polarn och Pyret gear) because the chances are it won’t last the duration of the first year.

Unlike at kindergarten, schools in Sweden lack the staff to make sure children put everything back on their pegs, which means almost everything disappears. It’s not stolen, just lost.

This means it’s probably worth having duplicate rain gear, winter jackets etc, unless you want to be the parent sending their kid to school shivering in inadequate clothing. 

How to make friends with other parents

It’s perhaps a little harder to get to know other parents in Sweden than in some other countries, and harder at schools than at kindergartens. Parents dropping off are often in a rush to get to work, while those picking up want to get back home. 

Ask your children if there are any other children in their class they want to play with, or just observe who they play with when you drop them off in the playground, then either grab their parents in the cloakroom, or contact them through the Facebook page if you have one. 

Sometimes parents or teachers put up a paper by the door of the classroom where parents can write up their names and phone numbers. 
 
One of the advantages of sending your children to the nearest municipal school is that most parents will live nearby, which means that before long you will only be picking up your children about half the time, with them otherwise going on various play dates with friends. 
 
Start a Facebook group for your class

Schools often dislike parents in a class starting their own Facebook group, fearing it will become a forum for grievances and discontent. But they are actually a useful source of information, where parents can remind each other of when the school is closed for lesson preparation, warn of outbreaks of head lice, and share photos of school events.

If no one sets one up, take the initiative and do it yourself. 

Attend class yourself 

If you are curious about what is happening in your child’s class, you are normally welcome to sit in on the class to get a better sense of what they are up to. 

Sign up for any apps and web services

Schools in Sweden increasingly use apps like Infomentor, or programmes like Schoolsoft to help schools coordinate with parents, which you need to get on top of and check regularly. Sometimes, however, the teachers themselves aren’t yet up to speed on the apps, so it’s important to check other forums. 

Mother-tongue tuition 

In the form you filled in in summer, you were probably asked which languages you speak at home. In Sweden, children who speak other languages at home than Swedish are entitled to receive mother-tongue tuition in one of them. 

Schools and municipalities are only required to provide this from Class 1, but many municipalities offer it to children in pre-school class as well. 

Normally schools are required to provide mother tongue tuition on site if five or more students in their school speak the language. Otherwise, municipalities tend to hold classes for a language at one school, with parents responsible for picking up their child from their school, delivering them to the class, and returning them to school afterwards. 

Be aware that some parents have had to fight their school to get the mother-tongue tuition that is their right under law, particularly if their language is a relatively rare one in Sweden. 

Know that your family vacations are now ruled by the school calendar

School in Sweden is compulsory, which means you can’t just pull your kids out for a ten-day winter holiday in Thailand (as some of you maybe used to at the kindergarten stage). Your family vacations will now be ruled by the municipal school calendar.

Schools vary in how strict they are about this, but some will report you for breaking your duty to send your kid to school if you miss even a single day. 

For the school, it is also important that you know several months in advance for which part of the school holidays you intend to put your child in fritids or ‘free time’, the school-run childcare programme which costs a few thousand kronor a month, so they know how many staff to schedule. 

Remember that you can change school easily in the first month or so of term 

If for some reason you don’t like the school you’ve been given – perhaps it has a bad reputation or is too far from where you live – the first few weeks of the first school year are often the time where you are most likely to be able to change, as some children don’t turn up to the schools they are assigned after getting a place at a private one.


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