Where the Swedes have no blame: the country that banned sanctions

11th November 2015 at 15:10

Tom Bennett journeys to Sweden, the country that banned punishment in schools – by law. But what do teachers think of it? 

Sweden is one of my favourite countries. Home to Bergmans Ingrid and Ingmar, Lasse Halestrom, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium crime novels, Alfred Nobel and the Tetra Pak, it’s still the only place in the world you can pick up some really fresh ABBA. I could live here, in its fair-minded, forested chilly wilderness. Many of us already do, sort of: 1,000 years after the Vikings scunnered Northern Europe, Sweden has soft-conquered every bedroom and kitchen from here to Bombay in an explosion of sensibly designed flat-packs.

I was on a boomerang visit to Gothenburg, there and back again in 12 hours: maximum inconvenience, minimum cultural osmosis. I came for two reasons: to talk to Sara Hjelm my partner in crime for researchED Scandinavia, which we're putting together for March 2016; and to deliver a workshop with Henrik Hoffmann (a lawyer specialising in school legislation). Henrik was neat, articulate, serene, and meticulously prepared; the Yin to my more dissolute Yang. He and I delivered a two-fister to a room of around 500 teachers; he talked about the Swedish law and behaviour, and I was there to talk about more practical strategies to stay within that law. It was an interesting lesson for me too.

Edu-tourism is always a dangerous sport. Cultural baselines make it enormously difficult to draw simple lessons from complex contexts, and importing foreign initiatives can be as successful as digging up a banana tree from Costa Rica and expecting it to blossom in Birmingham. But it is fascinating. Swedish education only becomes compulsory at the age of seven. Play is seen as an integral part of Swedish education. As Per-Olof Nilsson, a retired professor in Gothenburg says, ‘Simply cramming a lot of facts into the left side of your brain is useless’, Nilsson says. ‘We need to add fantasy and creativity to mix it all up. I call this “the chaos of learning”.’ I call it ‘Dude it’s 2015 no one talks about left-brains anymore.’

Sweden used to perform handsomely by international comparators; but this has seen an erosion recently, and Sweden has started to slip like oily Lutfisk down the rankings of PISA and TIMSS. There have been many responses to this; one was the Swedish Education Act (2011) which aimed to ‘improve student results and rising the status of the teaching profession’. One way of obtaining the latter was strengthening the requirements for all teachers to be qualified. Another response was the 2010 Swedish School Act, and I wonder if that doesn’t pull in quite another direction. 

This act partly focused on the pupils’ rights, and restricted the possible disciplinary actions that a teacher or school could make (Sweden is famously an advocate of children’s rights, being the first country in the world to ban corporal punishment). No where is this seen more clearly than where it describes ‘unlawful actions towards a pupil’; uppermost (in my mind anyway) is ‘punishment.’ The whole concept of punishment must play no part in the system of consequences in Swedish schools. Punishing was banned by law.

What does this mean in practice? I used my time there to probe the question. Teachers cannot respond to misbehaviour with a response that aims towards punishment or sanction. All consequences must aim at restoring calm or delivering an educational entitlement. So a pupil can be detained to catch up with work missed in lessons, but they can’t be given one for simply being rude. So what can teachers do?

The Stairs of Discipline

Amazingly (to me) the consequences are prescribed by law, and they go as follows:

  • A talk
  • Asked to leave the room briefly
  • Detention (for the reasons given above)
  • Investigation
  • Actions (internal school response)
  • Written caution
  • Temporary transfer to another classroom
  • Suspension

And that’s the order things pretty much have to go in. Of course, in extreme circumstances a school could skip some of those steps (if a pupil set fire to the exam hall, for example) but the school would have to be prepared to justify why. So the teacher doesn’t have any autonomy of response to a classroom situation- just the law, clear and complete. 

What effect does it have? Does it work? This seemed crucial to me; maybe the peculiar Nordic chemistry meant that this was enough. I was certainly sceptical - everything I’ve learned about behaviour management in schools teaches me that all systems need to have bite; they need something to back them up if a student doesn’t feel like playing ball. 

And I could see that many teachers were less than happy with this development. After my session I had a Q&A, and one of the most popular questions was ‘What do I do if they misbehave? What can I do?’ And heads nodded and nodded. And I realised the enormous handicap this undoubtedly well-meaning legislation had caused. Because while it might seem a perfectly noble ambition to avoid sanctioning children- who, after all, enjoys doing that?- the consequences of ducking this important strategy can be disastrous.  

As Karin Oster, a Swedish teacher currently in the UK told me:

‘…behaviour is worse than ever and there seem to be two underlying reasons: teachers are not seen (by parents and students) as authority figures (I get the impression that Swedes don't like that word anyway…), but it translates into a lack of respect for the teacher as a professional. Secondly, class room management seem to be dependent on the individual teacher's charisma.  There are no whole school policies  and no support structure in place if behaviour is unmanageable. Which means a less confident teacher's ability to actually teach is wholly dependent on the students' goodwill. I always thought I would teach in the UK for a while and then go back home but after 12 years I just can't see myself in a Swedish school context.’

Other teachers, who preferred not to be named, agreed with this. And who could blame them? As one put it, ‘If a student swears at or bullies the teacher, it’s very hard for the school to do anything about it, unless it becomes a police matter. Students have successfully brought civil suits against schools for failing to meet the requirements of the legislation, or given the wrong kind of sanction, for example. But for teachers, nothing. The scales have tipped too far towards the child.’ 

Now I admit this is a fleeting impression, and perhaps there is data to convince me that this is a wise policy. And Swedish schools appear to be quite brilliant in many other ways. But I am reminded of Robin Williams' impression of the English Bobby, naked of firearm. 'Stop!' he would shout to the escaping thief. ‘…or…I'll shout Stop! again.' 

Pax Americana

Speaking of America, over in Los Angeles, teachers are having their own problems with similarly well-intentioned policies, as suspensions for defiance have been banned, and replaced with a system of restorative justice, which seeks to resolve conflicts through ‘talking circles…to build trust.’ As the LA Times reports:

"The shift has brought dramatic changes…But many teachers say their classrooms are reeling from unruly students who are escaping consequences for their actions...Community groups that monitor the issue say it is unclear how schools are coping with unruly students under the suspension restrictions — in part because the district has not released data on how many, for instance, are referred to the administrative office and what happens to them afterward. At [some schools] principals reportedly sent disruptive students home without recording them as suspensions…

"My teachers are at their breaking point," [said] Art Lopez, the school's union representative. ”Everyone working here is highly aware of how the lack of consequences has affected the site. Teachers with a high number of students with discipline issues are walking a fine line between extreme stress and a emotional meltdown.” Lopez wrote that many teachers felt that administrators were pushing the burden of discipline onto instructors because they can no longer suspend unruly students and lack the staff to handle them outside the classroom. Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, which represents principals and others, declined to comment."

Of course. What comment could they make, other than ‘Suck it up, teachers’? 

In defence of deterrents

Nobody likes reprimanding students. No one enjoys setting sanctions. And a good thing too, as anyone whose buttons were pressed by these things shouldn't be allowed near children. But sanctions are essential as a part of a behaviour consequence sequence. Why? Because if you take the spring away from the mousetrap, there's nothing to stop the cheese from walking. And if you reckon mice, all mice, will spontaneously spurn a free lunch then I have some real estate on the Moon I want to sell you. 

Kids, amazingly, are people. And people often need incentives to act in ways they don't feel inclined. Many, most even, might uphold civil codes that promote the common weal; but even a few rebels makes a mush out of the fragile peace we call a safe learning space. All teachers know this: 1 or 2 determined Jacobites and you can bin the diamond nines. 

What a piece of work is man, or indeed woman. Equal parts virtue and vice, weak, heroic, doomed, and immortal. Society is the greatest act of invention we have achieved; a tacit Brownian motion of cooperation and tolerance. But you're a fool to think its rails run on love; they hum also with the distant threat of coercion. Laws are climbing frames to our greatest ambitions. But they are not options on a hotel breakfast menu; they are terms of a contract someone else signed for you. Show me a better system that worked. 

And contracts are upheld, not by the promise of reward, but by the judge. You can hold a scented handkerchief to your nose and look away if you're wealthy and privileged enough to believe that the natural state of society is cooperation. But you might ask yourself why good conduct is ultimately underscored by the courts and the cells, and not some enormous Tesco voucher reward scheme for good behaviour. 

Take away simple deterrents from a teacher's repertoire of responses to misbehaviour, and you leave little room between verbally reprimanding them and, as has recently been reported, the option of calling in police to remove stubborn pupils. Who could see that as an improvement? We may recoil at the sight of the officer in Spring Valley High School removing the student like a violent criminal, but if you reduce a teacher's options to either nothing, or a nuclear strike, then I don't wonder if we'll see more of this. 

It is the year 2015 and we are contemplating terraforming Mars, and yet we still have debates about whether students should ever receive sanctions, as if young humans were somehow exempt from the psychological building blocks that make up their adult future selves. Sanctions deter. Not perfectly, but what does? Not evenly, as all humans react differently to stimuli. But broadly, bluntly. Most students will do the maths and ask themselves if it is worth acting as they please, or acting pleasingly. Some argue that, because some students couldn't give a glass of spit about sanctions, that they are impotent. You might as well argue that, because Uncle Albert smoked 50 Dorchester Black a day and lived to 99, we may as well smoke like pirates. Hard cases make bad laws. 

And here's where the magic happens: sanctions, applied as perfectly as possible, aim towards their own extinction. If you use them fairly, proportionately, with justice uppermost in your mind, then you find you need to do them less and less, as students trust you to maintain your boundaries. Even permanent exclusions, the terminal naughty step, create a climate where students know that one thing will lead to another. Remove that terminus, and there's little to persuade a determined student to simply ignore every reprimand and rebuke, knowing that nothing at all will happen. And an effective teacher has 100 other options other than mere deterrence. But we need that, undoubtedly. That's the disaster I've seen in too many schools, as students realise that the door isn't locked at all, and the alarm's a dummy. Why not just do as you please?