Adult Education in Sweden and Russia: Some Results of a Comparative Research

Elkhan Ismailov Associate Professor, Senior Researcher
Baltic Fishing Fleet State Academy (Kaliningrad, Russia)

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Mr. Elkhan Ismailov holds a scientific degree “Candidate of Pedagogical Sciences” and a scientific tittle “Associate Professor”, his current position is a Senior Researcher in Baltic Fishing Fleet State Academy (Kaliningrad, Russia). He graduated from Baku Foreign Languages Institute in 1981. Mr. Ismailov completed his Candidate dissertation in the field of methods of teaching national languages in Russian language environment. Since 1998 up to present time he has been studying Swedish education system. Last year with Törnströmska Gymnasiet’s (Karlskrona,) technical and financial assistance he published in Sweden a Monograph named “Swedish system of pre-university professional training”. This year Mr. Ismailov has completed his comparative research related to Swedish and Russian systems of pre-university professional training. The Report elucidates some of the details and discoveries of his comparative study.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia, as all former member states, has been keen to integrate into the European and world economic, cultural, socio-political arena. The integration processes, among the other things, objectively require the Russian Federation to adopt international educational concepts, strategies and standards commonly used in most developed countries.

Russian educational system (as the entire country) is in transition now and has been reformed several times over the last 10 years. A number of measures have been taken to improve the system but unfortunately not all of them have been fully realised and succeeded: transition from 11-year to 12-year secondary schooling, introduction of nation-wide combined school-leaving and university entrance examinations are among those projects that still wait for their implementation.

According to some Russian academics such basic education acts as “The national doctrine of education in the Russian Federation” and “The concept of the structure and the content of general secondary education (in 12-year school)” fail to give a clear picture of the current state of the national educational system and do not provide efficient recommendations how to improve it [5].


As it is commonly known, one of the driving forces of a progress in almost every field of human activity is the synthesis of accumulated world expertise. Under the circumstances when Russian educational system undergoes series of modifications it becomes extremely important to study and analyse present tendencies in the development of education in world leading countries. The activities and achievements of contemporary foreign scientists and scholars aimed at modernising national systems of education undoubtedly present a big interest to Russian academics.

Comparative analyses of existing national systems of education (or their components) is a common practice now and are carried out by international organisations (for example, UNESCO), in most world research centres and educational institutions as well as by individual scientists and scholars. Comparative studies pursue the following main goals:

• To investigate the present state of educational systems (or their components) in different countries and identify the important tendencies in their development;

• To specify similar and distinctive features in compared systems as well as to explain the grounds for those similarities and differences;

• To work out recommendations how to use the international expertise in order to improve the efficiency of education in home country.

Comparative studies as an effective method of pedagogical investigations go back to the early 19th century. French scientist Marc-Antoine Jullien de Paris (1775-1848) is considered to be one of the original founders of comparative research. He was one of the first to introduce scientific approaches in comparative analyses. His work “Esquisse et Vues préliminaires d’un Ouvrage sur L’Education comparée” (Paris, 1817) is regarded as classical.

During the last century comparative studies were conducted in conditions of internationalisation of pedagogical theory and practice. The investigations became more comprehensive and large-scaled. The scientists who have made a considerable contribution to the development of the theory and practice of comparative analyses are: G.Z.F. Bereday, V. Mallinson (the USA), C.A. Anderson, B. Holmes, N. Hans, E.J. Nicolas (the UK), J. Schriewer (Germany), B. Suchodolski (Poland), etc. [1, 4, 7, 8, 10, 11, 14, 16].

Due to political reasons, comparative pedagogical studies in the former USSR (with rare exceptions) were not carried out at all. The Marxist-Leninist ideology proclaimed the superiority of the socialist system of education over the capitalist one. That political dogma excluded any necessity in comparative studies.

Nowadays in modern Russia the situation in this respect has changed dramatically. The Board of Comparative Pedagogy is functioning within the structure of the Russian Academy of Education. In the works of renowned Russian academics and professors, such as V.P. Borisenkov, B.L. Vulfson, A.N. Dzhurinsky, V.P. Lapchinskaya, Z.A. Malkova, I.B. Martsinkovsky, N.D. Nikandrov, V.Ya. Pilipovsky, K.I. Salimova, K.I. Tseykovich and others, different aspects of world educational systems have been profoundly studied [6, 12, 18].


There are at least tree major reasons why I have preferred to take Swedish pre-university educational system as a research area.

The first reason is an objective one: Sweden is famous for its old traditions and high standards in education. For information, the compulsory school education was officially introduced in the Kingdom in 1842 just 19 years before the serfdom was abolished in Russia (by the imperial order of 19 February 1861). Although the country in 19th century was not as rich as the leading European states, the literacy of Swedish population used to astonish visitors from the continent and at the same time (as it often happens in human history) arose their jealousy. So in a nasty way they called the Swedes “the nation of well-educated paupers” [9]. Nowadays the country holds a leading position in the field of education among developed states. According to the latest statistical data in 1995 Sweden spent over 6,7 % of its GDP on education (for comparison, the UK spent – 5,3 %, the USA – 6,6 %, Germany – 5,8 %, France – 6,2 % and Russia in 2000 – 3,6 %) [13].

The second reason is subjective or, to be more precise, personal: starting from 1998 up to 2001 I, as the Head of International Department of Baltic State Academy (in Kaliningrad), co-ordinated all co-operation projects between the Academy and the educational institutions of Southern Sweden (mainly Karlskrona and Kalmar municipalities). That allowed me to visit Sweden quite frequently and to get first-hand information about Swedish pre-university, university and post-university systems of education.

The third reason is banal and as old as the world: lack of money. It is obvious that to carry out a comparative investigation in education a researcher must spend some time in a foreign country: to meet colleagues, observe classes, travel to visit different institutions, and finally have a place to live in and food to eat. I searched hard, but at the beginning all my attempts to find in Sweden (let alone in Russia) an institution or an organisation, which might be interested in my research and support me financially, were doomed to failure. Törnströmska gymnasiet was the only Swedish educational institution that expressed a genuine interest in my scientific activity and supported me both financially and morally. That is how I came to Swedish professional training in gymnasiums.

When I occasionally visited Sweden I was kindly offered free meals and lodging on board of “Wartena” (the training vessel belonging to the gymnasium). Thanks to personal support and kindness of the gymnasium administration I was given a green light to visit and observe as often as I like different classes, meet and interview my Swedish colleagues, study educational materials and documentation, etc.

In May-June and November-December 2002 I was a guest researcher at Törnströmska gymnasiet, during which time I had absolute peace and quite to spend on nothing but my dissertation. And finally with Törnströmska gymnasium’s financial and technical assistance I published last year my Monograph named “Swedish system of pre-university professional training”.


At the initial stage of the research in order to know if similar investigations have ever been conducted by other Russian researchers I have reviewed the country’s major pedagogical, educational and psychological journals (such as “Pedagogy”, “Higher Education in Russia”, “Alma mater”, “School Technologies”, “Professional”, etc.) published over the past 10 years as well as the National Catalogue of defended doctoral and professorial dissertations covering the period of 1995-2003. As a result I found out that Swedish educational system is almost undiscovered in Russia.

However, there were sporadic publications of some small articles of an informative nature dealing with specific issues of Swedish educational system [2, 3, 15].

Starting from 1998 I began collecting necessary data concerning the Swedish compulsory basic as well as upper-secondary (or gymnasium) educational systems. By the time I came to Törnströmska gymnasiet I had already identified the specific area of my research – the pre-university education as a whole and with special focuses on upper-secondary (or gymnasium) education that provides both general education and vocational training. My research covered a wide range of issues, including compulsory schooling in Sweden and Russia, welfare of school-aged children, gender equality in national educational systems, pre-university vocational training and pre-university adult education in both countries, etc.

One of the important objectives of the research was to compare national systems of teaching/learning modern languages in compulsory basic and upper-secondary schools and Russian technical schools.
At the very initial stage, prior to conducting the comparative analyses I developed a mechanism of investigation. I called that mechanism “the Synthetic Model”. According to that synthetic model the investigation was divided into the following four stages:

At the first stage I:

• collected factual material and data;
• reviewed Russia’s major pedagogical, educational and psychological journals over the past 10 years to find out to what extent the Swedish educational system is known and studied in the country, as well as
• worked out the scientific vocabulary (or the conceptual and categorial apparatus) of the research.

At the second stage I:

• developed the methodological and theoretical foundation of the research, which contained main principles, approaches, concepts and methods of the investigation;
• identified the types of schools I was going to compare from Russian and Swedish sides (Russian technical schools and Swedish gymnasieskola)
• determined the elements of comparison, i.e. what actually I have to compare; the elements included such spheres as management, economy and vocational training in compared schools as well as all didactic components of teaching modern languages in compared educational institutions: theoretical bases, objectives, contents, methods and means (including IT) of teaching.

At the third stage I:

• carried out two comparative analyses: general and specific; the general included: description of current states of compared vocational training systems, specification of key tendencies in their development, as well as identification of similarities and differences in compared systems, their weaknesses and strengths; specific comparative analyses was aimed at studying the models of teaching/learning modern languages in Russian and Swedish schools, specification of key tendencies in their development, as well as identification of similarities and differences in compared systems, their weaknesses and strengths.

At the fourth stage I:

• drew the conclusions and tested their soundness;
• made practical recommendations how to adapt Swedish expertise to Russian environment in order to modernise Russian system of vocational training in technical schools, in general, and raise the efficiency of teaching/learning modern languages in those schools, in particular.

To test the soundness of my scientific conclusions and findings I organised number of round-table discussions with Swedish and Russian colleagues (both in Sweden and Russia); made several presentations in Sweden: at Törnströmska, of Chapman and Ehrensvärdska upper-secondary schools (Karlskrona kommun), Torsås korrespondensgymnasiet (Torsås kommun), Pedagogical Department of Växjö University; in Poland - Institute of Pedagogy and Scandinavian Department of Gdańsk University; in Russia – Kaliningrad State University, Kaliningrad Technical College, Kaliningrad Trade and Economy College, Baltic Fishing Fleet State Academy, etc.

To conduct the study, I used a combination of the following research methods:

• historical, logical, theoretical analyses and syntheses of original educational literature as well as documentation such as: laws, ordinances, regulations, etc.;
• statistical analyses;
• study and generalisation of results of pedagogical and psychological theoretical and practical researches, etc.

Introduction and wide usage of the historical principle as one of the leading principles in my studies enabled me to take into account the so-called “external factors”, such as current political, socio-economic and cultural conditions of the two countries, their historical and national traditions, which greatly influence their educational systems.

While staying in Sweden I:

  • visited many educational institutions, including: Törnströmska, of Chapman and Ehrensvärdska upper-secondary schools and Blekinge Institute of Technology, Litorina Folk high school (in Karlskrona), Torsås korrespondensgymnasiet (in Blekinge county); Västra Funkaboskolan, Östra Funkaboskolan, Stagnelius upper-secondary school and Pedagogical Institute (in Kalmar), Växjö University, Lund University, etc.

  • reviewed educational literature and documentation in innumerable municipal, university and school libraries;

  • met and interviewed Swedish academics, school principals and teachers, administrators, university professors, responsible officers from municipal educational departments, politicians and board members of different schools, pupils, university students as well as post-graduate students, etc.

  • observed classes.

    All that enabled me to obtain interesting factual material and data, which formed the foundation of both my professorial dissertation and Monograph.


    Pre-University vocational adult education in Sweden is provided in many different forms and under many different auspices, ranging from national or municipal adult education to labour market and staff training and competence development at work. The state school system for adults includes municipal adult education (komvux), adult education for the mentally handicapped (särvux), Swedish language teaching for immigrants (SFI) and the National Schools for Adults (SSV). In our research we chose upper secondary schools (gymnasieskola) within komvux as an institution to be studied from Swedish side. Komvux started up in 1968 and includes both basic and upper secondary adult education. Due to the following reasons I selected the so called technical schools from Russian side to compare with Swedish gymnasieskola:

    • firstly, both gymnasieskola and technical schools are voluntary and provide general education and vocational training;
    • secondly, both gymnasieskola and technical schools provide necessary training programmes for students to continue their education at Universities;
    • thirdly, gymnasieskola and technical schools accept both young people (15-16 years old) and adults (over 20 years old)
    • fourthly, the duration of training in both types of schools is practically the same; it varies from 2 to 4 years.

    Russian technical schools (nowadays mostly renamed into colleges) are medium level educational institutions designed to train professionals for differnt branches of national economy, healthcare, culture and education. Established in 1920, they were originally meant to provide mainly technical training (that is where the name comes from).


    In this chapter I would like to present in a very general form some of the results of my comparative analyses.

    I’ve specified the following major similar and distinctive features in Swedish and Russian systems of pre-university education, in general and in teaching/learning modern languages, in particular:

    On the whole, Swedish pre-university educational system is decentralised. The decentralisation processes started in Sweden in the early 1990’s. At present Riksdag, the Government and local municipalities are major parties in organising the national system of education. The roles and responsibilities are shared between Riksdag, the Government and local municipalities (kommun) in the following way:

    • Riksdag is responsible for legislation in the national education and determines the size of state subsidies for education;

    • the Government adopts ordinances, regulations, develops general guidelines for different sectors of the national education. It also approves curricula, syllabuses and assessment criteria for compulsory (9 years of study) and voluntary schools or gymnasiums (another 3 years of study). Skolverket is the central governmental body that controls the functioning of all compulsory and voluntary schools of the country;

    • local authorities play a major role in organising the educational process in municipalities. They are to a large extent independent in determining the ways of organising the compulsory and voluntary schooling so as to meet the state educational requirements and standards

    As it is probably well known in the West, Russian educational system used to be in Soviet era extremely centralised (so was Swedish system before reforms of the early1990’s). Thanks to measures taken by the State Duma (the lower chamber of Russian Parliament) and the Government over the past 10 years, decentralisation processes also take place in the country’s educational system. The pattern of sharing responsibilities in Russian educational system is more or less similar to the Swedish one. But in my opinion Russian local authorities are not as independent from governmental bodies as Swedish municipalities in organising education in their territories.

    Speaking about management of Swedish educational institutions, I found it rather politicised. It is a well-known fact that most schools in Sweden (if not all) are governed by Boards. More often than not Boards include people whose day-to-day activities are usually far away from education. Board members are normally representatives of power party (they constitute the majority) , politicians belonging to opposition parties, well-known businessmen. And there are only few professionals in education among Board members. In my opinion, such a big percentage of “non-professionals” (non-academics) in a steering Board of a school could negatively affect its efficiency.

    Russian educational institutions, on the other hand, are governed by Pedagogical Councils (in compulsory schools and colleges) or Scientific Councils (in Institutes and Universities). Employees and students (small percentage) of a school form its Council. The Chairman of the Council is always Director (Rector) of the school. Of course, all those people are academics, professionals and know educational business very well. But as I witnessed it many times in my career in a decision-making process at the Council meeting the Chairman (Chairwoman) could manipulate the situation to his/her own advantage. Since all Council members are his/her direct subordinates, they do not dare to raise their voices against the Chairman.

    The way in which many schools (for both young people and adults) in Sweden ensure the social rehabilitation of students with physical disabilities (for example, with impaired hearing or dyslexia , etc.) is very humane and kind: the students with disabilities are placed in regular groups; they have the same educational programmes. In the process of training the only difference between them and the normal students is that the former take additional individual programmes after classes and get assistance from qualified tutors who have passed a special training to deal with this type of students. In Russia this contingent of students is isolated from early age in special schools, where they feel that they are unwanted and treated as second-class citizens. Many of them develop a sense of inferiority, the feeling they cannot get rid of throughout their lives. However, to be fully honest, I must admit that in Sweden there are also serious critics of the practice of integration of students with physical disabilities into regular groups. The opponents bring the following argument against the integral tutoring: since teaching of disabled students requires more time and energy, the teacher will inevitably concentrate his efforts on them at the cost of normal students.

    The extent of involvement of Swedish students in planning and training process, taking responsibilities for their own education, as well as assessing the achievements is incredible. This important principle is applied practically at all levels of the national educational system. Pupils do not obediently and submissively execute the will and instructions of grown-ups (as it seldom is the case in Russian schools) but on the contrary they actively participate in training process. Young children from early ages share responsibility for their education with grown-ups – teachers, parents, etc.

    Another example: all national programmes in Swedish upper-secondary school (for both young people and adults) consist of different types of courses, which include core subjects (that are compulsory for all programmes), programme-specific subjects and student’s individual options. It is up to a student how to design his training programme. Of course, students are always supported in this regard by schools’ carrier advisors who give them professional advice about the selection of subjects for building up the most suitable and appropriate training programmes.

    Russian system of education in this respect is not as flexible as Swedish one and does not give students much freedom in building up their own training programmes. Training programmes in Russian technical schools are built up on the basis of state standards, regional and schools’ requirements and are accepted by students as a set block of subjects which they have to take. All national programmes of professional specialisation in Russian technical schools are divided into main and supplementary subjects. The formers are compulsory for all schools and programmes. They include state (or federal) and regional components:

    • the state component contains the minimum requirements for the contents of the subjects; the requirements are specified in the form of state standards;

    • the regional component contains the requirements reflecting regional, professional, national and ethnic peculiarities and features of training in each specific educational institution of Russia. The regional component also includes the ideas and preferences of individual designers and authors of specific educational courses.

    The Swedish system of grades in compulsory basic school (grundskola - 9 years of study) and upper-secondary school (gymnasieskola - another 3 years of study) is different from Russian system. In Swedish school system there are 3 grades: G (Pass), VG (Pass with Distinction) and MVG (Pass with Special Distinction). In upper-secondary school they use the same grades, plus IG (Fail).

    In Russian system, starting from primary school up to University level, teachers assess students’ knowledge in the form of grades: 1 (very poor), 2 (poor), 3 (satisfactory), 4 (good) and 5 (excellent). I was very much surprised when I got to know that in Sweden in compulsory basic schools teachers start giving marks to pupils from the spring term of the 8-th form. However, the pupil’s performance is seriously assessed by teachers and mentors in both compulsory school and gymnasiums.

    A regular class in a Russian technical school is usually divided into 3 main parts: revision of the previous lesson/lessons, assessing pupils’ knowledge and skills and presentation of a new lesson. More often than not these 3 components take place in almost every class, however their sequences might vary. As it was mentioned before, teachers assess students’ knowledge and skills at almost every class and give them marks (grades), which are put in Class Register (a book containing students’ names and in which teachers keep records about their attendance and progress). At least once a semester/ term teachers hold a parents’ meeting, where questions like student’s performance, behaviour, failures and successes, etc. are discussed openly and in public. Students normally do not attend those meetings.

    Toughness and strictness in terms of assessing students’ progress in learning and an enormous amount of examinations and tests students have to go through at all stages of the national education are, in my opinion, some of the major characteristic features of Russian education system.

    Starting from primary school and throughout secondary school, college and university Russian students take hundreds of examinations:

    - to be transferred from one form to the next one young children have to pass examinations (both oral and written);

    - to get the school-leaving certificate pupils have to pass final examinations;

    - to enter a college or a university after secondary school young people have to pass entrance examinations, and then

    - at the college or university students have to pass semester (term), course, final (state) and diploma examinations.

    Most of those examinations are rather difficult, painful and even traumatic and they on the whole negatively affect students’ (especially young children’) psychology.

    On the other hand, Swedish system in this respect sometimes is too liberal and “user-friendly”. The happy medium is as always somewhere in between.

    Assessing educational programmes in both types of schools as well as the level of vocational training they offer, I have discovered that Russian technical schools/colleges compared with Swedish upper-secondary schools offer much wider variety of fields of training as well as bigger number of vocational qualifications. To back up my conclusion I would like to give one example. Nowadays the Swedish upper-secondary school provides 17 national programmes (out of which – 15 are professional and 2 - theoretical). Russian State Educational Standard for Medium-Level Professional Schools (i.e. colleges, technical schools) contains the list of at least 29 professional qualifications; each of them is further subdivided into 5-9 more specific areas of specialisation. On the other hand, I should also admit that in Swedish system along with the national programmes many municipalities run local programmes.

    As to the level of professional training it is hard to make an unequivocal and definite judgement whether the two systems are equal or one of them provides a higher professional level of training than the other. Nevertheless, I am inclined to think that only in few cases Swedish and Russian schools provide equal level of professional training and in most instances technical schools are higher than gymnasiums. For example, maritime programmes in both types of schools are aimed at training low rank personnel (i.e. motormen and able seamen) for the Merchant Navy. But if we take, for example, construction programmes or other technical programmes, Russian colleges train primarily medium level technicians, designers, managers, constructors and other professionals at the managerial level but definitely not carpenters, nor welders or plumbers, or bricklayers or whatsoever as Swedish gymnasiums do.

    Speaking about the organisation of training process in Swedish upper-secondary school, 2 features (of course, among other things) impressed me immensely:

    - the policy of schools to give all kinds of assistance to students who have academic difficulties (to the so called “poor” students), and
    - a well-thought and competent professional orientation activity in both compulsory and upper-secondary schools.

    At Törnströmska gymnasiet I had detailed discussions with the staff of a special Department dealing with “poor” students and I was much surprised at the programmes and a broad range of techniques and methods my Swedish colleagues use to help students to improve their academic performance.

    As a guest researcher at Törnströmska gymnasiet I had also a series of meetings with the carrier advisor, who familiarised me with the steps and measures he takes to inform regularly students about the demands in the national labour market, consult them about future employment possibilities and give them advice about the selection of subjects for building up most suitable and appropriate training programmes.

    In this respect I would also like to mention that I have even had once a privilege to participate in a seminar for the carrier advisors of the whole Blekinge county. I was given comprehensive information about professional orientation programmes run in compulsory and upper-secondary schools of the county.

    We should certainly borrow and apply to Russian system of pre-university professional/vocational training these two excellent practices.


    My conclusions about teaching/learning modern languages in Swedish and Russian pre-university educational institutions in a very general way could be presented in the following form:

    • in both Russian and Swedish systems of teaching/learning modern languages there is an objective to develop the learner’s autonomy;

    • both Russian and Swedish systems have a communicative orientation, i.e. the main goal of learning is to develop the student’s skills to use the language (in oral and written forms) as a means of communication. Both systems are based on Communicative Approach;

    • unlike Sweden (and most other European countries) in Russia there is not an official state policy to start teaching/learning foreign languages in compulsory schools at an early age. At least I have not found a single Russian Ministry of Education document setting that goal;

    • In both Russian and Swedish systems there is a “bilingual model” of teaching/learning modern languages;

    • in Curricula and Syllabuses of both systems there are no recommendations concerning methods or concepts of teaching/learning foreign languages; teachers are quite independent in selection of methods as long as they fulfil the state requirements and meet national standards;

    • in Curricula and Syllabuses of both systems the goals of teaching/learning foreign languages are too general and loose. In my opinion, with the manner the objectives are presented in those documents they cannot possibly convey clear guidelines to school teacher;

    • according to my observations, both in Sweden and Russia foreign language teachers and students (regardless of their level) use in class very much of their native language and very little of the foreign language;

    • the same textbooks are used in most Swedish compulsory schools and gymnasiums throughout the country. Nowadays in Russian schools there is a, great variety of textbooks written mainly by foreign authors. As I have found out, most of those books do not contain any methodological or practical guidelines and recommendations how to use the materials to get the maximum effect. Russian teachers without clear understanding of main concepts and ideas of the authors of those books very often use them by intuition.

    • as to the existing textbooks of Russian authors, most of them are out of date and contain Soviet realities. The same criticism can be addressed to the content of some Swedish textbooks for teaching Russian. I was taken aback when I found out that some of those books had pictures depicting life of people during Soviet time and even contain photographs of communist leaders such as Lenin, Stalin, Khruschev. Instead of helping younger generation to develop a truthful understanding of modern Russia (with its problems and achievements), those books continue spreading cold war stereotypes and prejudice about Russia.

    It is obvious that in one Report I could not possibly touch upon all the issues I dealt with in my dissertation. Due to the restrictions on the size of the report I have highlighted in my present work only some of my findings related to teaching /learning modern languages in Swedish and Russian pre-university educational institutions. I hope I shall have an opportunity to present in a detailed way my ideas about teaching/learning foreign languages in both countries in my future publications. And lastly, I would appreciate any feedback: comments, viewpoints, criticism, etc. concerning the ideas expressed in this Report.


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