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In Sweden, refugee crisis triggers an odd side effect: a teacher shortage

Tens of thousands of school-age refugees, many who came to Sweden unaccompanied, are putting stress on Sweden's already stretched education system.

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    Elementary school children get ready to board a tram during a field trip in March 2014 in Stockholm, Sweden.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
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Browsing through the ads on Skoljobb.se, an employment site for teachers in Sweden, it looks at first blush like a great time to be an educator in Sweden. There are an abundance of job openings, and employment prospects seem rosy.

But the boon for job-hunting teachers points toward a bigger problem: Sweden doesn’t have enough teachers. And that shortage has an unexpected cause: the refugee crisis.

Each year some 115,000 children are born in Sweden, but the past two years have also seen tens of thousands of young asylum seekers join the school system. As a result, in combination with a failure to attract enough young people to the teaching profession, Sweden will be 65,000 teachers short by 2025, according to new statistics from Lärarförbundet, one of two trade unions representing the country’s teachers.

“We’ve added almost a whole new class of pupils,” explains Per-Arne Andersson, head of the education department at the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKL), a trade association. “And considering that many of these new children have fled from wars or perhaps not attended school for some time, they may have more needs in school than ordinary schoolchildren.”

'An acute shortage'

As of August, nearly 49,000 people had applied for asylum in Sweden, more than in any other European country except Germany, which received nearly 246,000 applications, and Hungary, which has since built a fence. The Swedish Migration Agency is predicting 190,000 asylum applications for this year, a more than 100 percent leap from the 81,000 who applied for asylum last year.

Many of those arrivals are children – some 75,000 in last year and this year alone – who must be provided education. And within that figure are 14,058 children who this year traveled unaccompanied seeking asylum, up from 7,049 last year. The government is obligated to assign social workers to unaccompanied children, in addition to educating them.

But finding the manpower to educate the additional tens of thousands of children is a serious problem for authorities.

Sweden is already struggling with a dearth of young people attracted to the teaching profession. “In some subjects, for example science and modern languages, there’s already an acute shortage,” says Bo Jansson, chairman of Lärarnas Riksförbund, the other teacher union.

During the fall term this year, Mr. Jansson notes, only 16 people enrolled in the degree program for teachers of junior high German, Spanish, and French. Such numbers are woefully inadequate in a country of nearly 10 million where most students learn a foreign language in addition to English.

Training a teacher takes three years, and teachers’ low pay and status keeps talented young people away from the profession.

“If somebody who gets good grades says he wants to become a teacher, people’s reaction is, ‘you’re doing so well, why would you want to become a teacher?’” explains Miriam Svensson, a history and social sciences teacher at a high school in the town of Markaryd in southern Sweden.

Finding more teachers

SKL has now proposed a partial lifting of the law that requires all teachers to be certified by the government, and has also presented an unorthodox idea: it wants the government to allow asylum seekers trained as teachers to temporarily work in Swedish schools.

That would also provide asylum-seeking children with teachers who speak their language. In addition to regular classes, Swedish law gives children the right to training in their mother tongue, which has created a massive demand for teachers of languages ranging from Arabic to Pashto.

“Municipalities are banned from buying services from other local authorities, but what are you going to do if you’re a small town and you don’t have a teacher who can teach a student his mother tongue?” asks Mr. Andersson. “So municipalities violate the ban.”

As other EU countries begin receiving larger refugee numbers they, too, will face the question of who will teach school-age asylum seekers.

According to Dr. Susanne Wiborg, an expert in Scandinavian education at University College London, one solution is to launch fast-track teacher training programs. “And in the short term, one should introduce unqualified teachers who are keen to work with refugees in the schools,” she adds.

While unqualified home-grown teachers may not go down well in school staff rooms, Swedish teachers appear open to the idea of being joined by asylum-seeking educators.

“It would be great way of integrating refugees, and it wouldn’t be too hard since many of them speak English,” says Svensson, the teacher in Markaryd. There is, however, one tricky bit: the country’s overstretched teachers would have to train their unconventional new colleagues.

Of course, there may be a simpler solution to getting more teachers, Svensson notes: Just offer them better pay. “Raising teachers’ pay would raise the profession’s status.”

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