Sweden’s School Violence Problem is Part of an International Trend

Being a teacher has never been easy, and in many parts of the world, it’s becoming increasingly difficult. This would seem to be true in Malmö, Sweden, where the local education authority has just announced that it will ask the guardians of 30,000 primary school children to sign a contract, requiring them and their children alike to adopt a ‘positive attitude’ towards teachers. The main reason: reports of violent incidents against teachers and other pupils in Swedish schools has been on the rise, increasing by 121% between 2012 and 2018, according to the Swedish Work Environment Authority (SWEA).

However, while some right-wing accounts of the rise in violence in Sweden has pinned the blame on immigration and a failure to ‘integrate’ migrants predominantly from war-torn Syria, the truth of the matter is considerably more nuanced and complex. Because as similar rises in school violence in the UK, the US, Australia and elsewhere attest, such factors as poverty, inequality and cuts in public spending play a more significant role.

Reported assaults against teachers have been rising in Sweden since at least 2011, several years before the country began witnessing significant immigration from Syria. And since 2011, there has been a steady increase in reports of school violence, rising from 393 in 2012 to 870 in 2018. But despite this equalling a growth rate of 121%, the number of foreign citizens living in Sweden rose by only 39.7% over the same period, from 667,232 in 2012 to 932,266 in 2018. Their share of the overall Swedish population increased by roughly 2%, from 7% to 9.1%. This undermines the notion of a direct, one-to-one correlation between migration and school violence.

There’s also something else which undermines the idea that migration is to blame for the rise in violent incidents: in 2012, the system for reporting violent incidents in schools was changed, with the Swedish government introducing a webpage through which reports could be quickly made online. And according to Kjell Blom, a researcher and statistician at the authority, this made it easier to report incidents, also because the webpage was used to report workplace injuries to the more familiar Swedish Social Insurance Agency (SSIA). “I think the knowledge of the reporting to SSIA is well known in Sweden,” he tells InsideOver. “But this webpage made people more aware of the reporting to SWEA also.”

There is, then, no strong evidence that Sweden’s problem with violence against teachers is getting distinctly worse, despite increasing reports. On the one hand, this impression is reinforced by figures the SWEA also keeps on cases of teachers missing work due to violence or intimidation, which show 396 such cases in 2015 and only 336 in 2018. And when the picture is expanded internationally, it becomes apparent that factors such as deprivation, inequality and public spending cuts are more pivotal in creating the conditions for violence than an influx of immigrants.

In the UK – where spending on education has been cut by around £7 billion in real terms since 2011 – violence against teachers has also been mounting: 1,400 pupils were excluded from school for physical or verbal assaults against adults in the 2016/17 academic year, as opposed to 1,330 in 2015/16. And as the Department for Education’s data made clear, children eligible for free school meals were four times more likely to be excluded than children who weren’t eligible.

Something similar is observable in the US, where a 2017 study by researchers at the University of Missouri found that teachers in schools with higher levels of student poverty were more likely to report being attacked or threatened, while they were less likely to be victimized if their school had more “supportive administrators and teachers.” Meanwhile, in Australia, the figures also reveal an increase in reports of violence against teachers, with teaching staff and their unions highlighting spending cuts as one of the chief culprits. “We’ve seen behaviour management programs cut, and fewer staff in schools who are available to engage with at-risk students before their behaviour escalates into violence,” said State School Teachers’ Union president Pat Byrne in 2016.

Even in Sweden, deprivation and insufficient support is likely the single biggest determinant of violence in schools. A study published in 2017 revealed that the performance gap between foreign-born students and Swedish students all-but disappears when socioeconomic background and neighbourhood was taken into account. This almost certainly applies to any ‘violence gap’ as well, because as headteacher Jan Jönsson told The Local in 2017, school violence in Sweden is generally concentrated in poorer areas, such as the Norsborg area where his school is based.

It’s encouraging to note that the performance of Karsby International School, which Jönsson has headed for over five years, improved after the introduction of student welfare initiatives and also a Mentors in Violence Prevention program. In other words, if rates of violence in schools are associated with immigrants, it’s only because such immigrants suffer from a variety of avoidable social ills and an absence of help, rather than from some ‘inherent’ inability to acclimatise themselves to new cultures.