In latest Pirls reading comparison study, carried out in 2021, Swedish year four pupils scored a total of just 544 points, a sharp drop from the 555 points the country received in 2016 and only a little above the country’s worst ever result in 2011.
But Sweden’s 12-point fall was only slightly worse than the 10-point fall seen in the other 65 EU and OECD countries which took part, with Swedish pupils as a whole still scoring above the EU and OECD average of 529 points, and even slightly above the 542 average for students in Denmark, Norway and Finland.
At a press conference held to announce the result, Peter Fredriksson, the director-general of the Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket), put the fall in Swedish students’ reading skills down both to the impact of the pandemic and to an increase in the number of pupils who do not speak Swedish at home.
“We have said previously that the pandemic affects learning most for the students with the lowest level of resources,” he said.
In the agency’s interpretation of the results, it said that it was impossible to measure the exact impact of the pandemic as all countries were affected.
However, it said that as different countries had taken different measures that impacted on the education system in different ways, “the effect of the pandemic effect on the education systems of the different participating countries has probably not been the same”.
Although Sweden kept schools open for the youngest students, education was severely affected for two months or more in about one in every three schools, with either short-term closures or widespread absences due to sickness.
What Fredriksson said was for him “the most striking” element of the report, however, was the fall in the performance of the students with the most challenging backgrounds.
These were responsible for almost all of Sweden’s fall in reading performance, with the students who received the highest results still reading at the same level as in 2001, when Sweden topped the Pirls ranking.
“The number [of pupils] that are at the lowest level has never been higher and that is worrying,” he said.
There was a 91 point difference between the pupils judged as having the highest level of resources at home and those judged as having the lowest level of resources, up from 73 in 2016.
“We are concerned at the Swedish National Agency for Education that we have a segregated school system and shortcomings when it comes to equality between schools,” he said in a press statement. “This study confirms the picture we had earlier and even strengthens it.”
Sweden remains above average when it comes to reading ability, coming seventh equal with Taiwan out of the 65 countries in the study, behind Singapore on 587, Hong Kong on 573, Russia on 567, England on 558, and Finland and Poland on 549.
Sweden also beat Denmark and Norway, which both scored 539 points.