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Sweden looks at limits for profit-making schools

Peter Vinthagen Simpson · 21 Oct 2010, 15:45

Published: 21 Oct 2010 15:45 GMT+02:00

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The initiative comes as the government is set to open talks with opposition parties over a broad review of the regulations governing Sweden's publicly-funded, privately-managed free schools (friskolor).

Among the issues scheduled for discussion is the controversial subject of for-profit education and to what extent free schools should be allowed to withdraw profits if they are found to not live up to minimum quality standards.

"We have said that we need to review the regulations, which are out of date having been framed back in the 1990s," said Anders Andrén, head of press at the ministry of education, to The Local on Thursday.

"We are not against profits, as long as schools meet their obligations," he said.

Sweden's education minister Jan Björklund last week invited the Green Party and the Social Democrats, but not the Left Party, to cross-bloc talks on regulations for free schools.

"We have invited in the Social Democrats and Greens for talks as we are in agreement that free schools should be able to make a profit. The Left Party have a different position to the other six parties on this issue," Andrén said.

Sweden is one of the few of countries which allows independent schools financed with public funds to make a profit.

The debate remains controversial however after a series of high profile cases in recent years of large dividends paid to owners of schools and pre-schools in the private sector.

The Left Party is the only party which wants to rule out profits entirely, arguing that the withdrawal of public funds from operations impacts the quality of teaching.

The other parties more or less support the freedom to make profits, and discussions are set to focus on how to introduce regulations to curb excess.

"We have said that if free schools have been reprimanded, have been fined and so on, then we want to look at restricting profits in some way," Anders Andrén confirmed to The Local.

The Swedish Teachers' Union (Lärarförbundet) has meanwhile published a report ahead of its November congress arguing that teacher/student ratios should be used as a measure of quality.

The union cites new National Agency for Education (Skolverket) figures which show that teacher/student ratios vary significantly according to a number of factors, one of which being the organization of the schools.

While municipal-run schools had the equivalent was 7.9 students per 100 teachers, for-profit free schools only had an average 6.8 teachers per 100 students.

Free schools run on a not-for-profit basis came out on top - with 8.6 teachers per 100 students.

But despite the figures the union is positive to the current situation of allowing profit within the education sector.

"We are not against profits, but we have said all the time that education must be focused on quality," said union press spokesperson Claes Nyberg to The Local on Thursday.

Nyberg said that while the figures have been known for some time "no one has ventured to talk about them", adding that the union would welcome the discussion.

"The figures show that there is a connection, but that it would be linked to profits per se is a conclusion that can't be drawn. But the issue is something that needs to be looked at," he said.

Story continues below…

The number of free schools in Sweden has steadily increased in Sweden since the 1992 schools reform which allowed for the public financing of privately-run schools.

At the end of 2009 some 46.9 percent of all high schools (gymnasium), and 15.2 percent of primary and secondary schools (grundskola), were independently run, according to agency figures.

The figures also show that free schools at the "grundskola" level (grades 1-9) are becoming increasingly popular, with student numbers up 7 percent over the past year to 96,000. Student numbers at municipal-run schools dropped from 906,000 to 892,000 over the same period.

There are significant variations across the country with 32 municipalities having no students in free schools at the "grundskola" level, while in 14 municipalities, 20 to 43 percent of students attended a free school.

Free schools are managed in a plethora of ways - including limited companies run for profit, parent and teacher cooperatives, and charitable foundation schools.

Peter Vinthagen Simpson (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

14:30 October 21, 2010 by Rebel
Just wondering if anyone has done any serious research into corporate schools like Kunskapsskolan. I used to like the idea of corporations getting involved in education but now have come to the conclusion that the best thing Sweden could do is mandate that all free schools be not-for-profit. Maybe others would have a different opinion when investigating free schools in Sweden butI think this would be good for students and teachers alike.
17:03 October 21, 2010 by tillerman
It does seem a little strange that instead of regulating their quality and requiring performance for the right to operate they are going to limit profit instead. But, then, it is SO Swedish: 1) Be jealous of anyone who makes more than you and 2) stiffle initiative that produces wealth that can pay more taxes.
17:22 October 21, 2010 by Carl T
@tillerman: Don't forget that this is tax money being turned into profit. The schools don't get less money if they reduce the quality of the education, other than if the parents/students notice and react. This may not be a sufficient incentive for the for-profit schools to focus on quality, so from that point of view it makes sense to reduce their incentive to increase profit by cutting costs. The most desirable means of control would be to make profits conditional on teaching outcome, but that may be hard to implement and easy to circumvent. The other point of view is that if there are massive profits, there is room to cut costs for the tax payers by reducing the amount of money paid to the school - in effect a progressive tax on the profits.
19:44 October 21, 2010 by Rebel
Well, welcome to the real world. It is almost impossible to truly measure quality unless we decide that knowledge is what we want and we implement a British-style approach and require the ultimate checks and balances -- grades set after national exames.

Let's say you have a for-profit school that merely feels grades measure success. Will that not mean that grade inflation will result as a teacher's performance will be measured by how many high grades she gives in class? Then how will that measure out when schools with high standards for acheivement in both grades and abilities gained graduate students who worked their tails off for high grades but then they have to compete against students from grade-inflated schools? Did you know that universities in Sweden are not allowed to weigh grades attained at easy schools differently than grades gained from hard schools?

I fear that if corporations begin to start schools to make money, rather than ambitious and idealistic people starting schools to further learning (with money as a bonus) then we will wind up with many corporations fusing a Walmart approach to education. Is that what we want?
14:12 October 22, 2010 by Audrian
System of financing education can create two types of school systems, one for the elite, which is well financed and well supervised privately financed schools. The others, which are for the rest of society are financed by government; they suffer from inadequate and unreliable budget particularly during recession.

These differences are true in countries that have adopted two systems of financing education.

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