Come into my office, sir

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Pupils with their own rooms for homework, storage and privacy is just one of the new ideas being tried in Sweden as schools clamour to woo bigger numbers. Jon Buscall reports

If you call in to a particular school in Sweden, pupils Micaela Hamrin, Johanna Lof, and Malin Persson-Black, all 13, might invite you inside their office. It's decorated with pictures of Johnny Depp and has a mini-fridge.The girls think it's pretty cool. They're not unusual in having such accommodation; along the corridor, Nino Kageren, Pierre Borgs, both13, and Erik Apelkrona ,12, are more laid back.

"It's okay," Nino says. "At least we can get in out of the cold in the morning."

Sodertorns Friskola in Huddinge is just one school among many that has responded to government pressure to innovate. Swedish schools did well in international comparative tests this year but Stockholm has been stung by criticism of many aspects of schools there: the high number of teachers working without recognised qualifications - 21 per cent in state schools, 51 per cent in independents; the lack of up to date training in information technology; poor conditions for pupils; and a rise in violent incidents, including two attempts at a Columbine-style school massacre which, fortunately, were foiled.

A sharp increase in numbers of pupils choosing independent schools, particularly at upper-secondary level, has led to all schools trying to develop new and exciting approaches. They need to do so to recruit pupils.

A generation of school managers is emerging who seem increasingly prepared to question and change the face of Swedish schooling.

Sodertorns Friskola was started in 2000 by a co-operative of teachers tired of working at a nearby municipal school. Frustrated by what they felt was stagnation in the state sector, the headteacher, Birgitta Ljung, and her deputy, Bogdan Tylmad, along with a small group of like-minded colleagues, set about creating a school that reflected a new vision.

"When we started out we wanted to create a learning environment where pupils actively shared the workplace," says Ms Ljung. "We wanted somewhere the children could feel at home," explains Bogdan Tylmad. "But also feel responsible for their own space and work effectively."

So the school decided to allocate every pupil from 7th grade (aged 13) upwards a place in a shared office. This was possible because of the design of the buildings, a former institution for the mentally handicapped. It lies in parkland, a stone's throw from high-rise blocks. Rooms were converted into classrooms surrounded by four or five offices.

"In the beginning it took some time before the pupils understood how to use them," explains Ms Ljung. "Even now it's important to monitor how we're doing."

Micaela Hamrin admits, "In the beginning it was weird."

"We talked too much," confides Nicoline Roth, 13, "so we didn't get much work done."

"But," says Johanna Lof. "We quickly got used to it. I definitely prefer working in the office now."

Pupils still have lessons in the classroom, but are often given permission to work in their office during the day.

"It's easier to work here than in class," says Nino Kageren. "We work here during lessons if the teacher says it's OK."

The offices are such a success that some pupils use theirs at lunchtime or after school to do homework. Bogdan Tylmad explains it's because many don't have a quiet space to study in at home. "We even had one mother ringing up because her son was still in his office studying at 9pm!" he says. " But that was a one off. He and some friends were trying to compete a project."

Markko Pihlman, another teacher, claims it's not a problem monitoring what the class are up to when they work outside class. "Once they're settled they're fine. A lot of them prefer working in peace and quiet, away from a larger group. There's not much noise and they work effectively."

Walking around the school, it is evident from the eager faces of the pupils, beckoning me to look at how they've decorated their offices and talking enthusiastically about their work , that Sodertorns has discovered a new and rewarding way of providing a different yet effective school experience.

Swedish schools are typically well-equipped, spacious, and as clean as a hospital operating theatre. But the freedom to innovate raises problems.

Because of the pressure to recuit pupils, examination league tables have become extremely important. The added pressure for teachers is that they have to assess and examine their own pupils, with no help from outside examiners.

The pressure for innovation is connected to the rapid growth of the independent sector since the mid-1990s. The independents - or 'friskolor' - cannot charge fees and are obliged to follow the national curriculum, but have gained ground partly because they offer particular specialisms: liberal arts, computing and education in English are the most popular.

Pressure has come too from the director of the National Agency for Education who has called on teachers to give pupils more autonomy and work more closely with pupils and parents. This follows a survey showing that pupils were unhappy with school: they resent their lack of say in what goes on. Sixty per cent of 10 to 12-year-olds say they can't work in peace and quiet and have little time to juggle the demands of daily school life.

Bergsunds primary pchool, in Hornstull, a busy bohemian quarter of Stockholm, believes children learn best when their five senses are stimulated. Teachers share the classroom with recreation assistants and share responsibility for developing the children's physical, intellectual, and creative capacities.

"We place strong emphasis on incorporating physical education, music, drama and art in its broadest terms into the school day," says Lena Axedin, who has run the school with her husband, Lars-ke, since 1993. "Pupils are encouraged to develop to the fullness of their capacity through songs, plays, art and crafts as well as the traditional school curriculum."

Physical well-being is so important at Bergsunds that the children are taught massage. Such a holistic approach, where creativity and scholarly development are strongly linked, is unusual in Sweden. Most infants attend school until lunchtime: some then go home while others attend 'fritids'

(free time on site, although at some arm's length from the school).

"At Bergsunds teachers and recreation assistants have equal status," says Lena Axedin, a former recreation assistant herself. "They're both equally important to the learning process."

Class teacher Laiza Odegaard says: "A typical day starts off with my class meeting together with me and their recreation instructor to discuss what we're going to do. Then at several points during the day the class is divided up to into two groups of 13. Some stay with me and work, say, on reading and writing, while others do painting, drama or music with the recreation assistant."

Class work is often centred around a particular topic. "We recently ran an Ocean-project for the whole school," explains Odegaard. "The entire curriculum was tailored to this." The result? An array of drawings, models, poems and stories that decorates the school from top to bottom.

Laiza Odegaard is positive about the school's approach. "Because the recreation assistants work alongside teaching staff we bounce ideas off each other. It's very stimulating both for us and the kids. It also gives me plenty of opportunity to work with each child individually. It's easier to manage 13 pupils at a time, although there are instances, of course, when I teach the whole class together."

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