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EDUCATION

Why are Swedish teens in white hats singing and drinking on trucks?

Sweden's streets are filled with jubilant high school students. Why are they there, and what are they doing? The Local looks at the background behind this tradition.

Why are Swedish teens in white hats singing and drinking on trucks?
Students at Malmö Latinskola run out of the school building celebrating. 2022 was the first year since 2019 where there were no rules or restrictions on gatherings for student parties. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

I’ve just been in town and seen all these young people in white hats milling about on the backs of trucks and tractors. They’re screaming and shouting and listening to loud music. What’s going on?

All over Sweden, students are celebrating the completion of their final year of secondary education. What you have witnessed is the annual outpouring of emotion and champagne that is widely known as studenten. As Swedish rites of passage go, this one marking graduation from gymnasium is by far the most exuberant.

Students at Kungsholmens Gymnasium in Stockholm write messages in each others’ studentmössor. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman/SvD/TT

I see. But what are those silly hats that make them look like they’ve just got off on shore leave?

The stylish white caps worn by school graduates are in fact a relic from bygone days. In the middle of the nineteenth century students at Uppsala University began wearing the sort of headgear that had already become popular in Denmark and Germany.

The fashion took off and for university students the general wearing of white peaked caps persevered for more than a century until the revolutionary spirit of 1968 deemed them antiquated and bourgeois.

But the studentmössa, as it is called, refused to die, and has retained its popularity among school-leavers. In some schools Gymnasium students don the caps for the first time at a graduation ceremony at the end of April. They are then worn with pride until that joyous day when school’s out for summer and, indeed, forever.

What else happens that day?

The graduates often start the day by singing a traditional song about happy days of youthful abandon, all rounded off with a hearty ‘hurrah’. The ‘hurrahs’ get heartier still for those who choose to indulge in a champagne breakfast with their classmates.

Then they board the tractors and trucks?

No, not yet. In a throwback to pre-1968 days, when Swedish students had to complete a final exam before finishing school, the students now often gather in the school building before rushing out to meet their extended families in what is referred to as an utspring. The jubilant youths then get all manner of gifts hung around their necks on ribbons and everyone says ‘hurrah’ a lot again.

Students from a gymnasium in Västerås ‘springar ut’ (run out of the school) in June 2021. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

But what about the parade floats?

That’s the next bit. Groups of students often club together to hire floats for the day, which they then deck with balloons and bundles of birch twigs. Having successfully given their parents the slip, the students proceed to honour the occasion with a display of unbridled hedonism.

No passer-by can remain oblivious to the excesses of studenten, as an endless stream of party music comes blaring from the floats and students knock back champagne as fast as they possibly can, seemingly mistaking it for lemonade.

Students in Malmö celebrate on the back of trucks on June 7th, 2022. The trucks are often decorated with rude puns or the names of the students riding on the back. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

So they laugh, sing and make merry. Then what?

Then they get ready for the evening ahead when they do it all again. Except in a bar or nightclub rather than on the back of a truck.

Which is when I can start breathing a sigh of relief.

Yes, until next year, when a fresh batch of graduates reminds you once more of the distance between yourself and the joys of youth.

First published in 2007. Updated in 2022.

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EDUCATION

Sweden’s pioneering for-profit ‘free schools’ under fire

Thirty years after their introduction, Sweden is a world leader of "free schools" owned by for-profit companies that pay dividends to shareholders -- a business model hotly debated ahead of the general election on September 11, 2022.

Sweden's pioneering for-profit 'free schools' under fire

In a Stockholm suburb, the Drottning Blanka secondary school premises look more like an office space than your traditional red-brick institution with a schoolyard and gymnasium.

Like many of Sweden’s “free schools”, it doesn’t have its own building — instead, it rents a commercial space alongside other companies.

Here, performance is not just about how students do in exams.

“Free schools” owned by for-profit companies that pay dividends to shareholders are a business model hotly debated ahead of Sunday’s general election.

Drottning Blanka’s senior high school in Järfälla, Sweden. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

Almost a fifth of pupils in Sweden attend one of the country’s 3,900 primary and secondary “free schools”, first introduced in the country in the early 1990s.

Known elsewhere as voucher or charter schools, Sweden is a world leader in this type of schooling, which offers broader educational choice but still follows the Swedish curriculum.

Around three-quarters of “free schools” are owned by public limited companies and are for-profit, according to official statistics.

The remainder are either non-profit or run by foundations.

But in egalitarian Sweden, in order to ensure the “free schools” are accessible to all, they are 100 percent state-funded.

‘Party’s over’

Critics of the model decry the fact that taxpayer money intended for children’s education ends up in shareholders’ pockets.

“The party is over. The money from your taxes must go to schools, not to company profits,” thundered Social Democratic Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson in July.

She wants to put an end to “free schools” paying out dividends. Schools that do make profits should instead reinvest them in their establishments, she argues.

“The quest for profits in Swedish schools must end,” insisted Andersson, who is seeking the Social Democrats’ third straight mandate in the election.

Conceived as a right-wing reform in 1992 and supported by successive left and right governments since then, proponents of the system initially thought it would pave the way for a few schools run by individuals passionate about education.

Little did they know that it would give rise to a bevy of schools owned by private companies often listed on the stock exchange, such as AcadeMedia, Sweden’s biggest education group with annual revenues of over $1 billion (one billion euros).

The group recently announced — in the midst of the election campaign — that it would dish out 185 million kronor ($17 million) in dividends to shareholders, or about a quarter of its profits.

School Principal Pia Johansson poses for a photo at the Drottning Blankas secondary school in Jarfalla, Sweden. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

In the capital’s Järfälla suburb, principal Pia Johansson says her school’s parent company, Drottning Blanka AB which runs 27 establishments and belongs to AcadeMedia, has a profit margin target of six percent.

She’s opposed to a ban on dividends. “It’s like any other business: people invest money, large sums of money,” she says.

“It’s natural that investors want some of the profit,” she adds, acknowledging however that there “maybe should be some kind of limit”.

That’s the approach preferred by the leader of the opposition conservative Moderates, Ulf Kristersson, who is challenging Andersson for the role of prime minister on Sunday.

“I’ve always said that dividends at well-run school groups are not a problem for Sweden. I’m much more concerned about the bad state-run schools,” he said after AcadeMedia announced its dividend payout.

His party has called for dividend caps on schools that “perform poorly” academically.

Dividend ban?

While a large majority of Swedes are in favour of “free schools”, most are opposed to them turning huge profits, opinion polls show.

Prime Minister Andersson in July appointed a special rapporteur to draw up proposals on how to move forward with a ban on dividends from schools.

The issue is tricky, as existing shareholders would likely demand costly compensation.

Detractors of the for-profit system say the model attracts irresponsible actors, and encourages owners to cut costs to maximise profits and inflate students’ grades in order to bring in “clients”.

Marcus Strömberg, AcadeMedia’s chief executive, insists, however, that profits are necessary.

A company’s budget surplus enables it to invest in and develop its educational operations and provide “security for students”, as well as “create more school places”, he told AFP.

By AFP’s Karine Pfenniger

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