Free school applications hit new highs

Sweden's independent school sector continues to expand, with applications for new schools increasing 12 percent on 2010, according to new figures from the Swedish Schools Inspectorate (Skolinspektionen).

The increase follows a steep climb in 2010 and represents a 52 percent increase in applications to open independently-run “free schools” in comparison with the figures for 2009.

A total of 454 applications were submitted in the year up to the end of January 2001. Among the applications, 288 were for elementary or secondary schools and a further 25 were for special needs schools and high schools.

Stockholm heads the list of new applications, with 179 schools.

Around half of the total number concern schools in the big city areas of Stockholm, Västra Götaland (Gothenburg) and Skåne (Malmö) with 179, 106 and 105 applications respectively.

The agency will now send the applications to the relevant municipalities for consultation, with the applications considered in the light of the impact on municipality-run schools.

The Inspectorate will then decide on the applications in the autumn with most of the applicants in line to receive a decision by the end of the year.

The Schools Inspectorate took over the application process from the National Agency for Education (Skolverket) in 2009, so the figures are not directly comparable with previous years.

“But it remains clear that the number of applications has increased in recent years and in 2011 we received a record number of applications, 767,” said Schools Inspectorate statistician Mattias Svantesson in a statement.

The expanding free school sector came into focus in February when Sweden’s education minister Jan Björklund sharpened his tone against the privately-run, publicly-funded schools, conceding that there are several indications that profit takes precedence over quality.

Björklund acknowledged a degree of naivety from the political centre-right in regards to their view of independent schools.

The minister has previously announced a parliamentary inquiry to look into how free schools which fail to meet accepted standards can be prevented from taking out profits, but has stopped short of echoing opposition criticism of private equity firm ownership.

The three largest free school enterprises – Academedia, John Bauer and Pysslingen – are all owned by private equity firms.

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