In 2015 the number of immigrants seeking asylum in Sweden reached record numbers. In total, Sweden received 163 000 asylum seeking refugees that year. For us. as a teachers’ union, it was natural to contribute to the creation of a system that would make good use of the teaching competence of the newly arrived.
Lärarförbundet decided to treat the refugee crisis in a holistic way. During 2015, we developed a policy platform that would function as our compass in a period characterized by rapid political decision making in Sweden. Our platform contained proposals for the whole education system from pre-school to adult education. Formulating concrete proposals allowed us to be a step ahead in the process.
Our proposals were firmly established by knowledgeable and active members in the union’s reference groups for different levels of the education system. The union also carried out surveys to understand the views of our members on challenges at a time when a record number of newly arrived children and youth needed to be rapidly included in our schools. Thanks to our policy platform, we could be a central actor listened to by decision makers. Our agenda contributed to informing public opinion and the political decisions that were taken.
A Fast Track for Teachers
Many of the refugees in recent years have come from Syria and some had post-secondary education and experience in teaching. For us as a teachers’ union it was important that our members would get new colleagues well equipped to teach in Swedish schools. From experience we knew that teachers with a background in other countries often have a lot to contribute to the Swedish school system in terms of knowledge, experience and new perspectives.
The Swedish government took the initiative of creating the so called “fast-track” into the teaching career since a relatively large group of immigrants had a background in teaching. It involved social partners, the National Employment Agency, and universities that offer teacher education in a process to develop a fast track for teachers. My role as a union analyst was to develop proposals and strike agreements that would lead to a reasonable model for this fast track.
The process was intense, but all stakeholders were pulling in the same direction in a quite impressive way. There was a broad consensus among all parties that newly arrived teachers should be given good conditions to become established as professionals. Anything else was considered a loss not just for the newly arrived teachers but for the Swedish schools since the teacher shortage in Sweden was, and still is, considerable and will keep growing in the foreseeable future.
Something that was very important for me as a union analyst was that all unnecessary thresholds that hinder immigrant teachers from integrating the teacher workforce should be lowered. Newly arrived teachers should deal with a coherent and intelligible system. This required, among other things, that all authorities that teachers in the fast track encountered would work jointly towards the same goal. My expectations in this respect were far too high. Another important aspect was the possibilities to evaluate the fast track. This hope was also shattered.
Finally,-after six months- an agreement was reached on the model and implementation of the fast track.
The fast track model-three phases towards a teacher’s certificate
The fast track which was negotiated is characterized by parallel actions aiming to give the participants a coherent individual path to a Swedish teaching certificate.
In the first phase of the fast track, the participant does a 26-week introductory course that includes teacher-led practice in school and a theoretical course which gives an introduction to working in the Swedish school system. The course treats topics such as the history of the Swedish school system, its organization and values, didactics, etc. In parallel the participants study the Swedish language within the regular adult education system -Swedish for Immigrants (SFI).
In the second phase, participants only study the Swedish language to become eligible for complementary academic studies that eventually will lead to a teacher’s certificate. To enter the third academic phase, participants need to pass a language test.
The length of the complementary academic studies - phase three - depends on the teacher education each participant had already received in their country of origin. Sometimes it is a matter of additional subject matter studies and, in other cases, complementary pedagogical skills.
How did it all work out?
From April 2016 to February 2019 about 1500 persons have participated in the fast track; 60% were women and 40 % were men. Six universities have offered this opportunity. Approximately 10% of the participants dropped out, mostly those who found that they needed a lot of additional academic studies. Unfortunately, only a limited number have been able to enter the third phase of the fast track.
That the government,-despite Lärarförbundet’s protests during the negotiations,-chose to call this career path, “the Fast Track”, was unfortunate. Nothing so far indicates that it is fast. As I hinted earlier, there is no solid evaluation process that allows a monitoring of the participants, from phase 1 to obtaining a teacher’s certificate, something we as a teachers’ union have requested from the government many times. However, few participants have qualified to enter the third and final complementary education phase. To develop a functional professional language takes time and in our view, it is necessary to provide for that time.
A big problem, as I mentioned, is creating good collaboration between public authorities, which is needed to uphold the system. Administrative red tape, administrative fees, inflexible mandates, insufficient national management and a variety of agency cultures have, unfortunately, contributed to maintaining the thresholds that we as a union wanted to do away with. This puts the newly arrived teacher in a difficult situation, leading to frustration and hopelessness.
The future of the fast track
The future of the fast track is uncertain. The number of immigrants arriving has diminished dramatically and so did the number of newly arrived persons with teaching experience. The fast track is a large and important investment, but in our view, there are a number of things that need to be done differently. A teacher fast track 2.0 is desirable. The collaboration between authorities needs to improve, more and better opportunities for studying Swedish must be provided, and a monitoring system must be established to get a clear picture of what works and what doesn’t, in order to remedy shortcomings along the way.
Despite imperfections, the consensus regarding the needs and goals among the parties who initially negotiated the fast track, remains. We hope that the fast track can be modified so that newly arrived teachers will deal with a system that is robust, intelligible and sustainable over time. All newly arrived teachers should have good conditions to continue exercising their profession in their new home country.