Normativity, religion, and ethnicity in the school system

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Normativity, religion, and ethnicity in the school system

The Swedish school system presents two different approaches to religion. On the one hand, Christian ethics play an important role in defining the education system. On the other, public education seems to connect confessionalism and faith expression to ethnic and religious minorities in the country.

This article is part of our series on normativity in Europe.

There are different normativity bubbles connected to the realm of education in Sweden. For example, they exist in relation to the curriculum for upper secondary school, the debate connected to the existence of confessional education, and the attempts to prohibit the use of religious symbols in schools.

Normativity and religion in upper secondary school

The curriculum for upper secondary school shows that religion is both at the core of what defines normativity, and at the same time, a marker of otherness. According to the curriculum, Swedish education follows the ethical principles found in the Christian tradition and in Western humanism. However, the curriculum stresses that Swedish education is non-confessional.[1] Moreover, the curriculum states that students should gain knowledge of the main strands of the cultural heritage found in Sweden, the Nordic Countries, and in the Western world. On the other hand, when it comes to their understanding of national minorities, students are expected to learn more about the culture, language, history, and religion of said minorities.[2]

The curriculum for upper secondary school creates a remarkable situation. On the one hand, Christian tradition is one of the main ethical pillars in Swedish education, even though the latter is expressively non-confessional. On the other, it is in connection to minorities that students are expected to learn more about religion. Religion becomes, in other words, both a marker of normativity (with Christian ethics being central to the education system) and a marker of otherness (when attached to the study of minorities).

Normativity and confessionalism: banning confessional schools

The entangled relationship between normativity, otherness, and religion becomes all the clearer in the debate about the existence and work of confessional schools. A governmental report from 2020 proposes new regulations for this type of education.[3] Among these, the idea that no confessional schools should be established after 2023 is the one that has led to much debate. On the one hand, such a ban might be against the European convention, which stresses the right to choose an education in line with the person’s religious beliefs.[4] On the other, there seems to be a need to recognise the different characteristics of confessional schools instead of generalising their work based on their connection to faith and religion.[5]

Yet another aspect of the debate seems to revolve around the limited number of confessional schools in Sweden. The number of students involved in this type of education amounts to about 1% of the total number of students in Sweden. This is something that differentiates Sweden from other European countries, where this percentage is usually much higher.[6] Researchers, however, argue that a Protestant worldview is what characterises Swedish public schools, even though a majority of people do not notice it.[7] [8] The failure to recognise such religious elements that are part of (public) education in Sweden might strengthen the idea that (confessional) religiosity is connected to a minor group of people choosing faith schools. As a consequence, religion does not seem to have any connection to mainstream Sweden.

Normativity and faith expression: the role of religious clothing

Religious clothing becomes, in some cases, yet another marker of otherness. In 2019, two municipalities introduced a ban against the use of religious veiling in schools, with legal courts suspending the prohibition in 2020 and 2021.[9] [10] In 2021, the proposal to ban the use of female veiling in schools and in municipal administrations seems to be based on the idea that they might contribute to the oppression of women.[11] In March 2021, the minister of education received a written question about the ban on female Muslim religious clothing in schools based on this principle.[12] According to the minister, however, the use of religious clothing could be seen as a way of expressing personal faith, with the European convention and the Children’s convention protecting the individual’s right to do so.[13] Once more, religion, and more specifically, religious clothing as an expression of personal faith, is connected to a select group of individuals.

Either Swedish or religious?

In conclusion, the Swedish school system presents two different approaches to religion. On the one hand, Christian ethics play an important role in defining the education system. On the other, public education seems to connect confessionalism and faith expression to ethnic and religious minorities in the country. In the long run, a failure to recognise the role religion plays in the Swedish school system, and broadly speaking in Swedish society, might lead to a polarised understanding of normativity and religion. In other words, while mainstream Sweden may appear free from confessional elements, faith expressions become a marker of otherness. This may strengthen the opposition between being Swedish and being religious.

Annamaria Laviola-Svensäter

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Our team of analysts conducts research on topics relating to religion and society. In the second half of 2021, we are focusing on the subject of normativity. Find out more on the EARS Dashboard.


[1] Läroplan (Gy11) för gymnasieskolan

[2] Läroplan (Gy11) för gymnasieskolan

[3] Nya regler för skolor med konfessionell inriktning, SOU 2019:64

[4] Utredare: Svårt att stoppa religiösa friskolor

[5] Forskare: “Nyansera bilden av religiösa friskolor”

[6] Konfessionella skolor

[7] Forskare: “Nyansera bilden av religiösa friskolor”

[8] Swedish Religion Education: Objective but Marinated in Lutheran Protestantism?

[9] Slöjförbud stoppas i Skurup och Staffanstorp

[10] Beslut står fast: Olagligt att förbjuda slöja i skolan

[11] 17.28 Louise Erixon hoppas på ett slöjförbud

[12] Skriftlig fråga till Statsråd. Niqab-, burka- och slöjförbud i förskola, grundskola och gymnasieskola

[13] Niqab-, burka- och slöjförbud i förskola, grundskola och gymnasieskola Skriftlig fråga 2020/21:2356 Sara Gille (SD)