In 1955, Sweden made history when it became the first country in the world to make sex and gender education mandatory in schools nationwide. The curriculum has been continually updated since, most recently in 2011, after new laws bound schools to furthering gender equality in the classroom.
But despite these revolutionary sex-ed standards, many students remain dissatisfied. In a 2011 survey of female students and recent graduates, 96% thought sexual assault was insufficiently covered in schools, and more than a third thought the knowledge gained from their sex ed was “poor” or “very poor”. Participants also wished they’d been given more information on gender issues.
So what must the world’s leader in sex and gender education do to keep its status?
A flexible curriculum
Swedish students begin sex-ed at 11 in their fifth year of primary school, with the basics of puberty and bodily development. Lessons typically continue in the eighth year, focusing on sexual health and STIs, and ninth year, focusing on relationships and love.
Students then move to secondary school, where gender equality and sexual health are discontinued as stand-alone courses. Instead, teachers integrate the topics into other lessons such as biology and history.
How exactly the topics are included in classes’ lesson plans is up to the discretion of the school’s principal, or, in some instances, the teachers, the only expectation being that they meet national guidelines. A teacher might decide to discuss the #MeToo movement in a current events class, or women’s rights advocates in a history course.
The curriculum is unusual — few other countries weave the topic into other coursework. It’s even rarer to mandate that school employees proactively combat gender inequality and gender-based harassment.
“Our schools have the task of contradicting traditional gender patterns,” said Johan Lilly Gyberg, researcher for the National Agency for Education, speaking at the International Conference on Men and Equal Opportunities in Stockholm in May. “All those working there should provide opportunities for all students to develop their interests and abilities without gendered restrictions.”
Teachers are also encouraged to connect students to resources outside of the school. They might invite female rights advocates for guest lectures to celebrate International Women’s Rights day, or host a representative from a sexual health clinic to give a workshop on mutual consent to sexual activity.
Teaching without a lesson plan
But holes persist in the policy’s implementation, as well as lapses in requirements for teacher training on the topic. While classes for teaching sex-ed are mandatory for those working in years four through six, only one in 10 secondary school teachers receives training in sex and relationships, according to a February 2018 survey conducted by the Swedish Schools Inspectorate.
The same report found that two-thirds of secondary schools lacked a school-wide sex-ed system, leaving teachers responsible for planning, developing and evaluating their own programs. Without adequate training, teachers can find this a daunting task — some end up skipping or under-teaching the topic because they’re unsure how to approach it.
“The education is very different depending on which school you’re in, and depending on what teacher you have,” said Lina Hultqvist, Chairwoman of Sweden’s Federation of Student Unions.
“Student unions are taking a lot of the responsibility for talking about these subjects”
The problem is compounded by a lack of student input — in half of the schools surveyed, students didn’t get a say in what material teachers covered, or opportunities for feedback after lessons. And some teachers don’t think students are ready to talk about the topic, especially lgbt-related material, said Hultqvist, and thus won’t fully implement curricula.
Students end up having to pick up the slack. “Student unions are taking a lot of the responsibility for talking about these subjects by bringing in some speakers,” said Hultvqist. “I would say the school is not taking that responsibility.”
The lack of dialogue contributes to students’ reluctance to speak out on cases of sexual assault. When hundreds of female students and alumnae took to Twitter to share experiences with sexual assault under the #Tystiklassen (silence in the classroom) hashtag, many said they hadn’t felt comfortable reporting instances prior to the movement. Hultvqist attributes students’ silence to the lack of a safe whistleblowing function for students.
“In Sweden, if something bad is happening in the school, the teachers can complain without worrying about salaries or being fired. But students don’t have that guarantee,” she said.
To fix gaps in programming, teachers should be mandated to undergo training so that they are educated in the topic and comfortable talking about it with students, said Hultqvist. Heads of schools also have a role to play — in three of every four schools surveyed in the 2018 study, principals didn’t monitor teachers’ competency in teaching about sex and relationships.
Clear standards for topic integration in secondary schools must also be established so students who aren’t taking classes that teach crucial sex-ed material don’t miss out, she said. For example, students who don’t study science often miss out on important components of the biology behind sexual reproduction since the material isn’t covered in humanities and social sciences courses, the 2018 report said.
And students need more of a say in what’s taught in classrooms, as well as guaranteed protection for reporting cases of sexual assault, said Hultvqist.
In June of this year, as a result of the #MeToo movement, the Swedish government issued a 120million SEK (US$13million) package focused on creating a better work environment for students by eliminating sexual harassment. The Federation of Student Unions was assigned to lead the initiatives funded by the money in coordination with several other educational agencies.
The programming will begin this fall — the federation aims to reach 300 schools with educational programming on sexual harassment prevention, as well as a digital knowledge platform with materials and tools for teachers to run workshops on violence prevention.
“Sweden is a good example of having gender equality in the curriculum,” said Hultqvist. “But it’s also about implementing it.” — Alia Shahzad
(Picture credit: Pexels)