During the British election campaign earlier this year, the Conservatives heralded the ‘Swedish free school model’ as the answer to Britain’s failing schools.
According to a British public report, the introduction of free schools in Sweden has led to a “moderately positive” effect on the national academic performance of children aged 15 to 16.
But just as Britain was preparing itself for the introduction this autumn of three schools to be operated by Kunskapsskolan AB, Sweden’s largest free school operator, politicians back in Sweden put a new education proposal in place designed to tackle what they perceive as some of the pitfalls of the 'Swedish Model' some 20 years on.
Sweden’s free schools are a result of education reforms in the mid-1990s when the belief was that free-market principles would improve standards in all schools due to increased competition.
The schools are funded by public money from the local municipality on a per-pupil basis, but are set up and managed privately, allowing anyone who has an application approved to get into the business of running a school.
Despite being heralded abroad as the ‘Swedish Model’ in education, the country’s free schools only account for 9 percent of compulsory education and 17 percent of secondary education.
And while the introduction of free schools has expanded the number of choices available to students and parents looking for schools to suit their particular skills and interests, the schools have also given rise to a number of concerns.
One such concern is the rapidly growing number of religious free schools, which now make up 10 percent of all free schools. In the past 10 years there has been a 138 percent increase in pupils attending these schools, which are founded by both Christian and Muslim groups, as well as more controversial organisations such as the Church of Scientology and the Plymouth Brethren.
A recent report from the Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket) calculated a total of 64 primary religious free primary schools and five high schools (gymnasium), 49 had a Christian profile, while eight had Muslim profile and three were Jewish.
In addition, Sweden’s religious free schools have been singled out for suspected misconduct in a number of high profile cases in recent years.
One such case was the Al Salam school, an Islam-inspired school founded in 2003 in Örebro in central Sweden, which was the target of a Sveriges Television (SVT) documentary.
The documentary revealed that the school received funding in 2005 from the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, described by the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper as a “fundamentalist Islamic organization” and which is also on a United Nations list of organisations subject to sanctions for funding the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The school was also targeted by for a review by local authorities earlier this year when a number of the school’s employees quit due to poor working conditions.
Opinion in Sweden on whether religious groups should be allowed to run free schools is split. According to a survey conducted by the Synovate polling company, 46 percent of Swedes want to see churches and other religious groups banded from running schools in Sweden, compared to 40 percent who believe such schools should be allowed.
Per Kornhall, an ex-employee of Livets Ord School, run by a church within the Swedish evangelical Word of Faith movement, recently authored a book detailing his experiences of working in a religious free school as a biology teacher.
“If you open up the system, you also have to control it,” he says.
According to Kornall, prior to the introduction of Sweden’s new education act, there was hardly any legislation addressing religion’s influence in free schools, a situation which left the door open for fundamentalism within the religious free schools system.
“It seems the more that a religious organisation deviates from a normal religion, the greater the risk is that they will want to set up a free school,” he says.
Another problem, according to Johan Wennhall, head of the education department in the city of Västerås in central Sweden, is that religious free schools can foster segregation.
“There is always a risk, when everyone shares the same values and beliefs, that this can create an isolated community,” he says.
The segregation argument came up in a case involving the Plymouth Brethren, an evangelical Christian movement whose free school is situated in a small community in Småland in south central Sweden.
The Brethren believe in a strict doctrine of “separation from sin” which means members must keep away from any person or group that does not follow the exclusive Brethren teaching.
The school set up in 2007 by the Brethren was originally denied a permit from Swedish education authorities, was allowed eventually able to start operations after it changed its status to an “industrial” high school.
The free school system allows any organisation to run a school using state funds. Kornall points out that although it is illegal to teach ideas such as creationism in science class, the fact that the schools are privately owned has meant there has been no transparency, effectively meaning teachers can say what they want behind closed doors.
While inspectors have visited these schools, a lack of strict legislation has rendered the inspections “virtually useless” according to Kornall.
In his book “Livets Ord”, interviews with students reveal that often they would rehearse lessons before the inspectors would arrive. One particular student describes how “before an inspection, the teachers would tell us to look interested. The teaching would appear to be good, but it’s all the other things that go on there, which you can’t see if you’re only there a few days”.
In 2001 the National Agency for Education inspection of the Livets Ord school resulted in a damning report in which it described the school as being built on a sense of “authority and vengeance”, concluding that the school was “not up to the standard of Swedish democratic values”.
Despite the education authorities’ criticism, no action was taken against the school, a fact which, according to Kornhall, is a perfect example of how previous legislation has failed to control religious free schools.
Current Liberal Party leader and education minister Jan Björklund has criticised the existence of some of the more controversial religious free schools, stating, “students must be protected against any form of fundamentalism”.
Fellow Liberal Nyamko Sabuni, who served as minister for integration under the first Alliance government and will now find her portfolio housed within the ministry of education during the Alliance’s second term, has gone further and called for a complete withdrawal of municipal contributions to schools founded on religious grounds.
Under the Convention of Human Rights, parents have the right to place their children in a school “that is consistent with their own beliefs and philosophy”. However Sabuni believes that this law can be set against the convention on the rights of a child, also ratified by Sweden, which states that the best interests of the child be of “primary consideration”.
The new education act, which came into force in August and requires schools to be in compliance by the end of the current academic year, has been described by Björklund as a “sharpening” of the previous legislation and will see the same regulation apply for free schools as for national schools.
The act makes clear that the lessons in religious schools must be objective, factual and not contain any religious elements. It also says that free schools, while allowed to have a religious slant, are not allowed to force students to participate in religious activities.
However, it remains to be seen how effective the new law will be at addressing the influence of religion in Sweden’s free schools.
Anders Wirsén, principal of Josua Chistian free school in Gamleby in southeastern Sweden, interprets the new law in a way that still allows school official to require students to attend classes in religion.
In Wirsén’s view, the new legislation isn’t enough to prompt him to give students at his school a choice about attending religious lessons.
“If someone as a parent has chosen a Christian school, I think that’s where the choice lies and that they have then chosen the little morning gathering for a lesson in Christian teachings,” he told Sveriges Radio in March as the new law was presented for debate in parliament.