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Do Sweden's free schools make the grade?

Do Sweden's free schools make the grade?

Published: 16 Jan 2013 14:21 GMT+01:00
Updated: 16 Jan 2013 14:21 GMT+01:00

The UK has taken a page out of Sweden's textbook and is surging ahead with the free school movement. The Local’s Christine Demsteader looks at the lessons that can be learned from Sweden's system of publicly-financed, privately-managed schools.

It's been 20 years since Sweden enacted reforms which partially separated the country's school system from the state.

Legislation allowed private operators to start up and manage schools with public money, but with greater flexibility in drawing up lesson plans and shaping the schools' profiles.

Since then, the concept has attracted attention from educators in other countries, with officials in the UK especially keen to replicate Sweden's pioneering innovations.

But are Sweden's free schools as successful as many say?

To answer the question, The Local speaks with three experts in the field to parse out what lessons, if any, can be learned.

"What we are doing works and is having an impact."

Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES) is a school organisation that boasts the highest academic grades in Sweden. National test results in English, Swedish and maths from pupils enrolled at their schools are way above average and have been so year on year.

IES is also the company reported to have inspired UK education secretary Michael Gove into pushing the free-school system in Britain, even before the Conservative-Liberal coalition came to power.

Before reforms were passed in the UK, Gove visited the first IES school, set up in 1993 in Enskede, southern Stockholm.

"He saw an extremely well-functioning school with well behaved students achieving high academic results in a reasonably inner city area of Stockholm," IES Head of Academics Damian Brunker explains.

The organisation is now the largest operator of free schools in Sweden, with more than 13,000 students attending 19 schools spread across the country.

Its bilingual schools pride themselves on a "tough love" approach with high expectations.

"What we are doing works and is having an impact," Brunker adds.

"In time I think we will have the same impact in the UK."

IES was chosen as the education provider for a free school in Suffolk, which opened its doors in September 2012.

The school, IES Breckland, is owned by a parental trust and the company is given a fee to run and manage the school – reportedly around £21 million ($33.7 million).

At present, UK free schools are legally prevented from making a profit, but a trust can pay a company to run the school under a management contract.

"We always like to say if you open a school with the aim of making a profit you will not achieve quality or profit," Brunker says.

"If you open a school with the aim of achieving quality – profit will follow."

Having worked in the trenches as a teacher in various UK state schools, the switch to Swedish free school education was eye-opening.

"I have seen what is possible when a school's leaders have the power and the freedom to make the decisions," Brunker adds.

One lesson he believes can be learned from Sweden is greater choice.

"Anybody can go to any school no matter where they live whereas in the UK there are various admissions policies and catchment areas," he explains.

"In the future it would be wonderful to see that available in the UK as well."

"There's an issue in defining what a free school actually is."

When Sweden introduced free school legislation in 1992, the objectives were to provide more heterogeneity in education and to improve standards in a cost-effective way by increasing competition.

"We don’t look at it in terms of competition - we're looking to complement rather than compete," says Matthew Band, chief executive of the One in A Million free school and charity in Bradford, UK.

"For us it's about doing something different to make a difference so there's an issue in defining what a free school actually is.”

Amid the fanfare of 79 free schools that have opened in the UK, there are reports around a quarter are undersubscribed.

One In A Million was due to open in September 2012 but the plug was pulled on funding because of student shortages just a week before lessons were due to start, leaving 30 kids school-less.

Enrollments in Swedish free schools are currently on the decline as well, with a clear trend showing that fewer students apply to the formerly very popular free schools today than in past years.

Along with 118 free schools in the UK, One in A Million is now due to open in 2013.

"My faith in the free school movement hasn’t been shaken," says Band.

"Independence for schools is a good thing and as a concept I still fully support it."

Band takes his inspiration from the US charter school movement, which, alongside the Swedish system, was set up in the 1990s.

"We're sitting in the top one percent of the most deprived areas in the UK," Band adds.

"The focus of charter schools is on disadvantaged areas but in Sweden free schools become businesses.

"When it comes to profit, it does beg the question of why people want to get involved."

"The quality of free schools is in dispute."

Increased segregation and no significant effect on raised standards are conclusions reached by Jonas Vlachos, an associate professor of economics at Stockholm University and author of Friskolar i förändring ('Free schools in change')

The findings came from his 2011 research report into Sweden's free school system almost 20 years after reforms were introduced.

"Lower-secondary schools seem to perform slightly better, but on the other hand they also appear to inflate test scores more than state schools," Vlachos says.

"At upper-secondary level, the quality problems appear more severe. Research also shows increased socio-economic sorting as a consequence of increased choice."

Whilst there is arguably more heterogeneity in Swedish education today, it is not in the way it was first predicted and no one could foresee the development of large school chains with external owners.

"A lack of comprehensive and credible measures of educational attainment remains, alongside consequences of free entry by schools into the market and free choice among students," Vlachos adds.

Meanwhile, employer organizations complain that upper-secondary schools are not producing the graduates needed. Students attend programs that are perhaps fun, but with less labour market relevance.

There was no public investigation prior to the reforms, which Vlachos believes could be the reason why there are so few restrictions on who is allowed to open a free school in Sweden.

The question captured media attention to when a free school permit was legally put up for sale on a popular sell-buy website.

"No background in education is needed and Sweden is unique in accepting full public funding of for-profit schools," Vlachos adds.

Finances are a particularly sticky subject in the free school system, with companies being particularly coy about how they make money.

"It is impossible to know which schools make profits and how large these profits are," Vlachos says.

"But the way to profit is a lower per-student cost than state schools. Since labour costs make up a huge chunk, reducing staff is one way of doing it."

One of the biggest lessons to be learned, according to Vlachos, is that market forces do not seem function very well when it comes to education.

"Entry should be carefully regulated and ensure provisions that make it easy to close down free schools," he says.

"Independent actors can be valuable but it is very costly to have low quality producers in the market and it can be very difficult to get rid of them."

Christine Demsteader

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Your comments about this article

21:39 January 16, 2013 by BackpackerKev
Personally I find Swedish schools a joke, swedish schools may boast high grades or successes, but the level of Swedish education compared to many other nations seems much lower, What is arguably an A Grade in Sweden, could be compared to a C Grade in England.

From personal experience again, I find there are many teachers that don't go above and beyond the expectations of the school. The lack of tests and exams allow teachers to be more inconsistent in their teaching as by the time any exam happens, half the class have not understood the content of the class, but are too shy to raise awareness, and the level is increasing within the class where it now becomes the majority not understanding, or more students requiring assistance.

Every person has a right to education, but these companies that run the schools are more interested in making money and than giving a good education. If they were to educate the students to the correct level, the student themselves would see that the education itself is lacking, so it is in the best interest to keep students somewhat dumb and ignorant to good education so they don't question the professionalism of the low paid teacher or themselves wanting a higher standard.

At the end of the day, the schools are there to do one thing, produce sheep who will work and pay into the inefficient system though taxes and not motivate or educate the population to ask the relevant questions that will bring Sweden into the 21st Century.

Its similar to watching Dragons Den, many of the (delusional)people are trying to sell items that obviously don't work and will never work, or if they do work, other countries have been using a similar item for years.
11:14 January 17, 2013 by Migga
Even though you have that personal opinion Kev Sweden is doing fine when it comes to being inovative and competative.
19:56 January 18, 2013 by Iftikhar_Ahmad
Almost all children now believe they go to school to pass exams. The idea that they may be there for an education is irrelevant. State schools have become exam factories, interested only in A to C Grades. They do not educate children. Exam results do not reflect a candidate's innate ability. Employers have moaned for years that too many employees cannot read or write properly. According to a survey, school-leavers and even graduates lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. More and more companies are having to provide remedial training to new staff, who can't write clear instructions, do simple maths, or solve problems. Both graduates and school-leavers were also criticised for their sloppy time-keeping, ignorance of basic customer service and lack of self-discipline.

Bilingual Muslims children have a right, as much as any other faith group, to be taught their culture, languages and faith alongside a mainstream curriculum. More faith schools will be opened under sweeping reforms of the education system in England. There is a dire need for the growth of state funded Muslim schools to meet the growing needs and demands of the Muslim parents and children. Now the time has come that parents and community should take over the running of their local schools. Parent-run schools will give the diversity, the choice and the competition that the wealthy have in the private sector. Parents can perform a better job than the Local Authority because parents have a genuine vested interest. The Local Authority simply cannot be trusted.

The British Government is planning to make it easier to schools to "opt out" from the Local Authorities. Muslim children in state schools feel isolated and confused about who they are. This can cause dissatisfaction and lead them into criminality, and the lack of a true understanding of Islam can ultimately make them more susceptible to the teachings of fundamentalists like Christians during the middle ages and Jews in recent times in Palestine. Fundamentalism is nothing to do with Islam and Muslim; you are either a Muslim or a non-Muslim.

There are hundreds of state primary and secondary schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. In my opinion all such schools may be opted out to become Muslim Academies. This mean the Muslim children will get a decent education. Muslim schools give young people confidence in who they are and an understanding of Islam's teaching of tolerance and respect which prepares them for a positive and fulfilling role in society. Muslim schools are attractive to Muslim parents because they have better discipline and teaching Islamic values. Children like discipline, structure and boundaries. Bilingual Muslim children need Bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods, who understand their needs and demands.

IA

http://www.londonschoolofislamics.org.uk
21:16 January 18, 2013 by BackpackerKev
To some extent you have to separate education that is on a general level among all and faith. We are not in an idealistic world, nor do we live in idealistic countries.

The mere separation at an educational level based on faiths creates social problems within itself. Muslim, or non muslim, is being human not enough to have a positive and fulfilling role to society. I am non religious and I have tolerance and respect but I also have objectivity(something i would say is very important) because i educate myself on both and or all sides of a subject matter. Objectivity is not something that is taught in schools based on faith. Course content must be controlled as not to allow for contradictions or deviations, or freedom of thought because a faith school in itself has its own agenda.

Schools should have only one purpose, to teach everything it possibly can, and to prepare the students to continue to teach themselves once they leave.
14:47 January 19, 2013 by shinnam
The author needs to talk with some teachers at the free schools if she wants to write a story that informs. Just look at arbetsförmedling site and how often the free school are advertising for teachers...
09:08 January 22, 2013 by andreasbe
Me personally had a great education in the Swedish school system, looking at Private Education around the world it is obscene how much I pay for my Kids education, and I personally believe that the SkolPengen system works.

Look at a school franchise like VITTRA, this is an awesome and progressive network of schools, great program and great results.

Then look at a school like SSHL in Sigtuna, they have more problems with pressure and scandals than the Zimbabwean Government... On top of that the SSHL still charge you 200,000.00kr additional over and above the funds that they get via Skolpengen.

PS! I went to S:t Per(Sigtuna), S:t Olof(Sigtuna), Spanga Gymnasium/Kista Annex(Kista) and Thorilds Plans Gymnasium(STHLM).

My sister went to: S:t Per(Sigtuna), S:t Olof(Sigtuna) and SSHL (Sigtuna)

My Brother Went to: S:t Per(Sigtuna), S:t Olof(Sigtuna) and Marsta Gymanium (Marsta)

My Kids go to Bishop Bavin (Johannesburg, South Africa)
19:56 January 22, 2013 by AquamanUK
Do NOT believe the Propaganda of the Tory/Conservative/RIGHTWING-NUTS of the UK, Free Schools in the UK are a Disaster! They gloss over all the problems and 'just wrong' about the entire concept of 'Free Schoools' in UK by the rightwing-nuts! They are NOT popular schools, they are the breeding ground for Taliban, and other Ethnic groups who can Teach WHAT they want HOW they want WHEN then want - all without any supervision of the Local Educational Authority!

They are Wrong, They are a Disgrace, and I would never send any of my children to any of the UK (clone of Sweden) Free School!

Children learn from having to deal with and over come the adversaries of life - to put them in a school of all muslim or Bangladeshi, or Sri Lankan, or Indonesian etc etc etc etc etc - Is TOTALLY WRONG!

All children should go to school together and with time and experience - LEARN how to cope and deal with "DIVERSITY",

Putting all the same children into GHETTO Schools - is so wrong on SO many LEVEL's - something ONLY a right wing-nut politician would propose!
17:12 January 23, 2013 by Youdee
Independent school is the correct translation. Free school is a direct translation.

http://www.friskola.se/Om_oss_In_English_DXNI-38495_.aspx
19:42 January 28, 2013 by EtoileBrilliant
@ Iftikhar_Ahmad - Can you tell us how Muslim schools address subjects such as creationism versus evolution?

"Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra, from the Muslim Council of Britain, said: "Faith schools are by and large established to enforce the religious teachings of our lives, and the theory of creation is one of the cornerstones of our faith."

To me that is the best argument as to why Muslims should be integrated into state approved curricum.
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