In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Childhood Education in Sweden

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Development of Preschool
  • The Challenging of Future Early Childhood Education

Education Early Childhood Education in Sweden
Ingrid Pramling Samuelsson, Niklas Pramling
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0081


Sweden has a population close to ten million inhabitants, of which 550,000 are children under the age of eighteen. One-fifth of the population has roots from a foreign country. Eighty-one percent of mothers and 92 percent of fathers are employed, and thus the country has a great need for early childhood education programs. Almost 50 percent of one-year-old children, 91 percent of the two-year-olds, and 97 percent of the five-year-old children are in some kind of early childhood education program (Skolverket 2010, cited under Historical Development of Preschool). Early childhood education is in Sweden labeled preschool for children one to five years of age. For children between three and five years, preschool is free of charge for 525 hours a year (three hours/day); for hours above that, a maximum fee is charged of around 140 euros (a maximum of 2 percent of the income of the family member with the highest salary) for each child. Two percent of the gross domestic product in Sweden is spent on early childhood education and care. Preschool is financed by a combination of governmental and municipality subsidy and some family payment. The municipality is responsible for providing a place for each child at the latest four months after parents have asked for it. Children have the right to preschool if their parents do not work or have parental leave. The parental leave in Sweden is 480 days (sixteen months) shared between the mother and father, of which one of them must take at least two months. The parents keep about 80 percent of their salary during their parental leave, which due to the tax system means very little less money than normally earned. Around 20 percent of the preschools are private, but still these preschools are subsidized the same way as the municipality preschools and cannot charge more money than the municipality preschools. They are requested to use the same curriculum, an issue that is addressed in this article. There are also night preschools in about 120 municipalities, for children whose parents work at night. Most of the staff in preschool are educated: 54 percent are university-educated preschool teachers; 41 percent are nursery nurses (a two-year gymnasium education); and about 5 percent have no appropriate education.

General Overviews

The preschool teacher education is today three-and-a-half-years long, with possibilities to continue at the master’s level at some of the universities. There are also large emphases on in-service courses, paid by the government for upgrading the competence of the staff according to the new curriculum (Skolverket 2010, cited under Historical Development of Preschool). The government has also spent money on research schools, where the intention is to get highly educated preschool teachers to work for the municipality with development work and quality questions. Children in Sweden are in groups with roughly 17 children with a ratio of 5.4 children per adult. Most often a staff team of three works together. The variation in group size is large, from about twelve to twenty-five children in different municipalities (Skolverket 2010, cited under Historical Development of Preschool). Children can be in toddler groups (one to three years), older preschool children (three to five years), or in sibling groups (one to five years). A new trend in Sweden now is to put larger groups together with around forty children and six to seven staff. These larger groupings mean that the teams of staff become larger and need more planning, but they can divide children into smaller groups and, according to staff, can be more flexible and less vulnerable if someone is sick or at a meeting. This development has created debate. Although the debate is about groups of children in preschool being too large, the municipality or the staff themselves can make the groups larger by merging smaller groups or then again separate children into smaller age-based groups during certain times of the day. This model is also very common in the neighboring country of Norway, where they call this kind of preschool “basic preschool” (Norwegian: basebarnehage). Sweden’s early childhood education system is ranked as very high quality, according to United Nations Children’s Fund 2008 and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2001. All Nordic counties are highly evaluated, but Sweden is the only country to reach all ten UNICEF benchmarks. This rating is a measurement of child allowance for all children, full cover of places in preschool for all preschool children, the level of educated preschool teachers, a national curriculum, governmental subsidy, minimum staff-to-child ratio of 1:15 in preschool education, the amount of gross domestic product spend on childhood services, child poverty of less than 10 percent, and near universal outreach of essential child health services. Achieving these benchmarks means that the society provides possibilities for families (both women and men) both to take care of children and to be active in the labor market. Kristjansson 2006 shows how the political agenda in the Nordic countries has had an ambition for a long time to develop a democratic society in which young children’s rights are respected.

  • Kristjansson, Baldur. 2006. The making of Nordic childhoods. In Nordic childhoods and early childhood education: Philosophy, research, policy, and practice in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Edited by Johanna Einarsdottir and Judith Wagner, 13–42. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.

    Kristjansson describes the development of Nordic childhoods, from policy to educational practice. Policy decisions that have put the family and the child in a specific position are discussed as well as how the pedagogy as such is specific to the Nordic countries. Kristjansson finds that the policy as well as practice is strongly related to a notion of democracy.

  • Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2001. Starting strong: Early childhood education and care. Paris. OECD.

    This report provides a comparative analysis of major policy developments and issues in twelve OECD countries, highlighting innovative approaches for organizing policy in ways that promote child and family well-being. The report proposes eight key elements of successful policy for decision makers seeking to promote equitable access to quality early childhood education and care.

  • United Nations Children’s Fund. 2008. The child care transition. A league table of early childhood education and care in economically advanced countries. Florence: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.

    Twenty-five OECD countries are evaluated based on, for example, parental leave, a national plan for disadvantaged children, subsidized or regulated, 80 percent of the staff trained (50 percent with a tertiary education with relevant qualification), minimum staff-to-children ratio of 1:15, 1 percent of gross domestic product spent on early childhood education and care, child poverty rate of less than 10 percent, and near-universal outreach of essential child health services. Sweden is the only country to achieve the highest score on all ten benchmarks.

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