Once upon a time the choice of secondary or high school was easy for Swedish students. You went to the school closest to where you lived. But two major reforms in the past decades have changed all that: ninth graders were allowed to apply for any secondary school in their city, or metropolitan area, and the system was opened up to what are called “free schools”. These are private schools that are publically funded, like charter schools in the US and the academies in Britain.
Suddenly Swedish middle school leavers had many choices, although since the number of places at any school is limited, that also meant that instead of automatically getting into their local high school, competition for some popular schools and programs meant they needed the grades to qualify.
Ahead of the February deadline for applications, schools in the Stockholm area recently took part in a fair, selling their programs to prospective students. The choices are many.
Fifteen year old Daniella Torres is at the fair to look for programs that will prepare her for college. She says “This is so big, lots of people, different ways to go. It’s hard to find everything.”
She’s echoed by her classmate Fernando Riofrio: “There are a lot of people here,” he says, “too many.”
Fernando wants to learn to be an electrician, and is talking to two schools: “If I could choose, I would take St. Eriks,” he says. “It’s much easier to work with a computer than to sit and write in books, when you’re studying electricity.”
Even if some programs require good grades, it mostly seems to be a buyers’ market, there are more places than students. Three out of four applicants get accepted to their first choice.
But making that decision can be difficult. To help them, there’s the Gymnasieguiden, the High School Guide, which is mailed to all ninth graders. Kristoffer Jarefeldt has worked with the guide for the past 20 years.
“The feeling is that there is so much to choose from, which creates a lot of stress,” he says. “There are recent reports of mental health issues, and I think it has to do with all the choices and the flood of information.”
One good way to find out more about a prospective school is to talk to someone who is actually studying there. Seventeen year old Enzo is one of several from the Jensen gymnasium at the fair for his school:
“We’re here to represent our school”, he says. “We want to strengthen the school’s economy and durability by attracting more people.”
A recent survey revealed that Swedish secondary schools spent nearly SEK 30 million on advertising last year. And that doesn’t even include online advertising or the working hours spent by personnel going to fairs and open houses. And some of the enticements to new students may be a bit questionable.
Kristoffer Jarefeldt of the Gymnasieguiden says one attraction that was more common a few years ago was offering computers to all new students. Today, he says, many see such offers as not serious.
“The ambition is of course to recruit as many students as possible to your school” he says. “As competition increases, new tactics are used to attract young people. Sometimes it might go a little too far.”