We moved to Sweden almost 4 years ago now and although I live and work away a lot, Dadonthebrink and the kids are very much Sweden-based.
Life in Sweden is good, though not without its challenges. The costs are high, the salaries average, the public services good, but rigid and you do get by just speaking English (I’m embarrassed to say.) The countryside is a lush, beautiful expanse of forests and lakes; The summers and deep winters are beautiful, the shoulder seasons less so. The darkness of the winter months is tough, but not without its beauty.
Let’s explore some of these in more detail, shall we?
Is it expensive to to live in Sweden?
When we moved, in 2016, I calculated the food prices and the housing prices were about 30% more than the UK. Today, on the cusp of 2020, this gap has lowered due to inflation in the UK and Sweden’s relatively stable economy. Sweden is still more expensive than the UK, marginally, in terms of food and definitely more expensive than Germany.
Salaries in Sweden, apart from possibly Stockholm and Gothenburg, tend to be more flat and the difference between top and low earners is less. Swedish average salary is said to be about €35,000 a year. This buys you a reasonable living standard depending on your accommodation costs and your spending habits.
Sweden’s taxation is quite interesting: It is one of the highest taxation regimes in the world, but the taxes are paid at local level and filtered up to central level. (Here’s a tax calculator- from Skateverket). This makes paying those high taxes, knowing that it first goes to your local amenities, much more tolerable. It also helps to know that things actually work.
Accommodation in urban areas, as I’ve written before, is possibly the biggest headache, as the costs are high and it is difficult to get rental accommodation.
Is living in Sweden good?
Yes, generally living in Sweden is good.
Good work-life balance
There is an excellent work-life balance for families with both parents encouraged to work supported by reasonable child care provisions. (The children even get a free warm meal in nursery and school, which takes a lot of pressure off parents during the weekdays.)
The workdays tend to be 8 am to 5 pm with an hour lunch break and interspersed with lots of coffee breaks. (The Swedes are one of the highest consumers of coffee in the world.)
Less traffic and chaos
In urban areas, the public transport is very good, albeit a slight bit expensive at times. Lots of rural areas still have decent public transport connections too. This all reduces the need for a car.
Urban planning takes into account, as much as possible, a reduced use of the car. Uppsala, for example, being the fourth largest city of Sweden is very much a cycling city, where people are encouraged to cycle year-round. Cycle paths being one of the first places to be cleared when there is snow and ice.
Virtually free healthcare
The healthcare system in Sweden is good. Though there are long waiting times for treatments. The healthcare is nearly free at the point of access: there is a minimum cost at each treatment time, which is equivalent of about €10 for a doctor console and between €50 – € 150 for an x-ray or an operation. These costs are, however, capped per individual to an annual maximum.
Easy access to nature
Part of helping the work-life balance, the local authorities provide a range of outdoor facilities, which include things like frisbee golf in forests, well-maintained cycle paths, playparks, skate parks and general public parks.
There are easy-to-access hiking paths in and around the city and some have picnic areas with fire pits. The local authority even provides chopped wood for the firepits.
The expansive nature that surrounds us and is widely available to the public through the freedom to roam laws. It makes Sweden a wonderful country for those that enjoy the outdoors. (And actually enjoying the outdoors is almost a necessity in the winter months but I’ll return back in.)
What is it like living in Sweden as a foreigner?
As a native English speaker I find very little barriers in communication in Sweden. Though I do recognise that being able to speak Swedish would have great advantages, especially in social settings.
Sweden is remarkably inclusive in assisting immigrants, like us in integration both through translating Swedish and trying to work with us in our native languages but also by providing state-funded integration and language programs.
As a society, the Swedes have been very welcoming of us, as a European white family. I don’t know of any friends of different ethnic backgrounds that have faced obvious discrimination either. Anecdotally, I have heard of certain positions being awarded based on a person’s background as opposed to purely merit.
Support for integration
SFI- Swedish for immigrants- is a remarkable program that helps you integrate by teaching you Swedish in a very intensive setup. You can choose weeknights or daytime and it’s up to 4 hours a day of intensive Swedish classes. These are fantastic, except they assume that you don’t have a life outside of learning Swedish. Therefore the course organisers do not take account of school holidays or anything as such. (This is an example of where Swedish rigidity comes in- the Swedes have amazing systems but sometimes the rigidity of these systems make them a bit restrictive and exclusive.)
Moving to Sweden as a family
Moving to Sweden as a European family was relatively straightforward. Registration and paperwork are notoriously complicated in Sweden.
Swedish Personal ID Number
In Sweden, EVERYTHING revolves around a personal ID number (personnummer) , a 10 digit number issued by Swedish Tax Office (Skatteverket). This number is essentially your date of birth followed by a unique 4 digit (often memorable) number. The format- YYMMDD-XXXX. Without this personal ID number it is very difficult, almost impossible, to get anything done, getting employment, getting housing, medical care, a bank account, etc.
Swedish Bank ID and cashless, digital society
The next such complication is something called a bank ID. This is a unique banking ID number is in effect a form of electronic signature, without which financially it is quite complicated to exist in this growingly cash-free society.
A lot of the financial transactions, even small transactions like buying something at the market, at a school disco or from a friend happens via mobile payments (SWISH) and for this, you require a bank ID. You require a bank ID for logging into your local municipality website, doing any sort of transaction there, for checking up in your children’s progress at school, registering their absence for illness, etc.
The Swedish school system- our experiences
Sweden has a reputation of having one of the best school systems in the world. Having moved our children here at the ages of 3, 7 and 8, we have experience of primary school and middle school so far.
We were quite lucky that our local municipality has a bilingual school where a lot of migrants and visiting academics (Uppsala being a university town with 2 large universities) enrol their children. Our children got a bit of help to start: they did not have to start straight away in a Swedish-speaking school, but were taught in English. The school provided additional language support as well, taking them out of their regular classes to help them pick up Swedish.
When we moved, the children were moved back classes in line with their age group (not the class they were part of at home.) Unlike in the UK, where school ages are set from 1st September to the end of August, in Sweden they are from January 1st of January to the 31st of December. Angelina was moved back two years and Hugo was moved back one year compared to his English year, Max was in preschool.
Children in Sweden start getting used to a schooling environment in preschool, where, from the age of 4, they start taking part in group activities. Till then it’s more or less free play and free crafting and good naps in the fresh air.
Formal schooling starts at the age of 6 in Sweden, with junior class, where they start to learn letters and numbers but in a very playful, informal way. Children are also encouraged to go at their own pace. Those that can go faster will be taken at a slightly faster speed, but not too far ahead. (This can prove a little bit frustrating for children who are advanced. )
In our school, it was not possible to move Angelina up a class, despite her feeling extremely frustrated with the lack of progress and being bored because of her level of maths and English. The philosophy is that children should be with their peers for emotional development as opposed to intellectual development.
At their school there was lip service paid to streaming of more advanced students and letting them work ahead: This was done for some, very select, bright students, who would actually get disruptive when they weren’t allowed to work ahead. But if a child is less outspoken they won’t get this support from the school.
As I have talked about it before, we had great difficulty (as I think we would have had in the UK as well) with getting Hugo confirmed to have dyslexia.
We actually ended up changing schools to a private school which we felt would have better support in streaming according to abilities and we finally did receive the dyslexia support after he had moved. This was irrespective of the school, but his new school have been very good at supporting him.
We have also moved Angelina into a private school, where Hugo also goes.
Interestingly, there are very few fee-paying private schools in Sweden. Private schools in Sweden still conform to the national curriculum but do they have some flexibility in how that is delivered, around the teaching principles and extracurricular activities. So, for example, Uppsala music school has a much more intensive way of teaching regular subjects, so that students can fit in extensive music lessons.
The school, Hugo and Angelina go to, is a foundation school where they have the ability to develop more independence and there is more scope for streaming according to their abilities: Such as giving Angelina the opportunity to attend English classes with those two years above her, so she can feel a little bit challenged at least. It would be similar with other classes.
Integrating into a fully Swedish class has been a little bit of a challenge for both Angelina and Hugo, even though they spoke Swedish by the time they move. In this new school, we do feel the slight cultural difference to a very open, very multicultural, racially and ethnically undivided class they had before. Both the children were slightly more withdrawn socially for the first couple of months when they changed schools. The teachers were brilliant at communicating with us and helping them integrate.
Overall, I’m little critical of the Swedish schooling system: I feel there are some very strong aspect of it and there are some weak and frustrating aspect of the Swedish school system and educational approach:
Slow start in school
I think starting school later, at the age of 7, really, is brilliant because it does give the children a lot of scope of play and develop social skills. Some of that time could be used more constructively: teaching them real emotional intelligence and more creative outlets- encouraging them into the messy play, and arts and crafts instead of just letting them play outdoors, a lot.
Not enough push academically
Once kids start school they start very-very slowly.
Due to cultural norms of inclusivity the primary school education is frighteningly weak. Sadly, what we have experienced, is that the teaching is not even to the average student’s level, but to the lowest common denominator in the classroom. Instead of taking the children that are lagging behind out and giving them extra support, the whole class is taught to the lower level so that the children who are lagging behind do not feel excluded.
The principle of “Lagom”, a wonderful philosophy of contented living is detrimental when applied on a societal level, especially to the education system- in an effort to help children not stick out- up or down- they basically lift up who are struggling by why not letting other children shine and actually proactively discouraging, them at times.
I say this with confidence based on examples like when we were asked to help Angelina set the targets for her grades her teacher openly encouraged us to allow her to set grades as E (on a scale of A to E with F being a fail). The teacher was very discouraging when we actually set grade at significantly higher levels than that.
Teaching children independence
What’s we, as a family, have benefited from hugely is the independence that the children gain here in Sweden. From the age of 8, children are allowed, in fact, encouraged, to go to and from school on their own. From the age of 10 roughly, they will often go to clubs and sports activities on their own. (Most of the sports clubs are after 5 pm in case parents do you need to take them.) Kids get a free bus card from the municipality for travelling independently up to 7:30 in the evenings.
Things that have contributed to us feeling comfortable with the children coming and going on their own have been things like:
- lower levels of traffic in the city, because of the good public transport system
- good facilities, wide sidewalks
Of course, there are troubles, like in any inner city, Uppsala, sadly, is not devoid of these. We have had shootings, rapes and serious knife crime in our neighbourhood. And yes, these do concern us. However, we try to teach the children how to avoid situations and carry on with their growing independence.
Part of the weakness of the schooling system also stems from the strong assertion of children’s rights. Kids cannot be forced to do something against their will, there is very little scope for punishment. They are encouraged to think independently, just as much as act independently.
So while children may not be academically brilliant with the Swedish schooling system, they develop as independent, critical human beings, with respect for their environment- natural and human.
… this is why overall Sweden is good for a family and kids growing up here.