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Do Sweden's free schools make the grade?

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Do Sweden's free schools make the grade?
14:21 CET+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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