This post reviews Cynthia M. Villalba, “Home-Based Education in Sweden: Local Variations in Forms of Regulation” in Theory and Research in Education 7, no. 3 (November 2009): 277-296.
Villalba, who recently received her PhD from the Institute of International Education at Stockholm University (Dissertation title: Home Education in Sweden), here presents an engaging summary of the recent history and current status of homeschooling policy in Sweden. Villalba begins with an orientation. There are currently about 100 families homeschooling in Sweden. Swedish law allows the practice as a legal alternative to compulsory schooling, but several prominent politicians have been speaking out against it of late (seemingly because of its popularity among religious extremists). To better understand the practice and its treatment by municipal government, Villalba surveyed 77 Swedish municipalities, interviewed 26 municipal officials, looked at numerous case documents and news articles, and observed several homeschooling families in action.
As one of her informants notes, in general Swedish law is where the United States was about 25 years ago, with local municipalities deciding somewhat arbitrarily how individual homeschoolers should be regulated. National legislation offers no clear guidance other than a vague assent to the legitimacy of alternative educational options, and few municipalities have any formal policies. So the individual homeschooler’s fate usually hangs on the whim of the local official, whose task it is to decide how much of the government’s regulations of public education to apply to homeschools.
As more families have applied for permission to homeschool, more municipalities are being faced with the need to craft a formal policy. Villalba describes in some detail how several municipal school administrators have been working out effective policies. The most formalized policies that have emerged explain what parents have to provide in an application, require standardized testing to ensure that students are up to government school standards, require home visits (typically two per term), and offer access to school resources and social activities.
Throughout the paper, Villalba makes much of the Swedish term insyn, which translates roughly to “insight” but is often associated with government oversight or surveillance. Insyn is the technical means government employs to ensure its citizens stay within the mainstream. It is clear from her discussion that Swedish society is concerned to a much greater degree than is the United States with ensuring that all of its citizens receive similar upbringings and educations. If school administrators feel that a parent’s home education plan is not sufficiently mainstream, they will deny it. Even if the plan is accepted, “continuous monitoring” including home visits and assessments are ever present to make sure that the “obligations of the modern Swedish welfare state” are met.
This article gave me a good understanding of the educational administrator’s perspective, but the voices of homeschoolers themselves were not there. What do Swedish homeschoolers think of this very invasive regulatory regime? How do they work within it? What motivates the few Swedes who opt to homeschool to do so? These basic questions were not even addressed. I haven’t seen Villalba’s broader dissertation. Perhaps she provides the homeschooler perspective therein. But if you’re looking for a clear description of Swedish policies as well as some behind-the-scenes accounts of how policymakers came up with them, this article is a good guide.
As for the parallel with the U.S. 25 years ago, I’m not so sure. It’s true that in the mid 1980s permission to homeschool was often up to the will of the local school official, whose decision could be quite arbitrary. But at that time there was already a large and growing movement afoot. Sweden doesn’t seem to have that crucial component. Absent a large, vocal, and organized grassroots base, not to mention a long tradition of tolerance for minority views and distrust of big government, I don’t forsee Swedish homeschool regulations softening the way they did over here in the 1980s and early 90s.