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'Free choice of school and charter schools can decrease segregation'

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
'Free choice of school and charter schools can decrease segregation'
IES Enskede, a charter school in the southern suburbs of Stockholm. Photo: IES

Ahead of the Swedish election, reforming the country's schools and improving educational equality is one of the top issues for voters.


Click here to read the first two parts of The Local's in-depth report on the Swedish school system.

One of the big questions is around the role of Sweden's charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately managed, compared to the majority of schools which are run by local municipalities.

From 1992, charter schools were made eligible for state funding making them free to attend, the aim of which was to raise quality in Sweden's schools by creating competition.

Critics of the system have argued that they have contributed to increased segregation and should be reformed, while supporters say that competition does raise quality, and that privately run schools can help compensate for segregation that already exists in Swedish society.

"Free choice of school and charter schools play a part in decreasing the current segregation which is mainly caused by residential segregation," Lars Granath from the Liberal Party told The Local.

"If you scrap free choice of school and ban charter schools, forcing students to go to the nearest school, as was the case before 1992 [when comprehensive reforms were made to the Swedish school system], the attractive schools in, for example, central Stockholm, would be reserved for a few; the relatively affluent people who live there."

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This stance is shared by a spokesperson for Sweden's largest provider of charter schools, Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES). IES' schools are located in 22 of Sweden's municipalities, from Umeå in the north to Lund in the south and including areas of different socioeconomic status, and in total are attended by children from more than 150 municipalities.

The schools operate on a first-come, first-served application system, which it argues gives everyone an opportunity of getting a place, regardless of where they live.

"Clearly our schools contribute to residential integration," argued company spokesperson Jonathan Howell.

"Our students come from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds, and their home municipalities might have set very different funding levels [for the municipally-run schools], but when they walk through the doors of an IES school they are all treated in the same way, and all encouraged to meet their full potential."

The school is bilingual, with over half of its lessons in Swedish, most of the remainder in English, and many non-Swedish students receiving support in their mother tongue. In total, 38 percent of students at IES come from a non-Swedish background, compared to a nationwide average of 24 percent, which Howell says is evidence that the schools foster integration.

"We have also been trialling the ability to give priority to a proportion of students who are newly-arrived in Sweden, following a recent change in the education law to allow for this," Howell said.

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He also outlined specific measures the schools have taken to improve educational equality. "We hold academic surgeries, where students can be given extra support to understand a concept they have been struggling with, so that students are all able to get a high quality of help and encouragement, whatever their parents' level of education is," he explained. 

The Friskolornas riksförbund, an organization representing Sweden's charter schools, has called for more of the schools to be established, pointing out that in several cases municipalities have vetoed the setting up of charter schools in vulnerable areas. 

Students graduating from the International English School. Photo: IES

Current Education Minister Gustav Fridolin of the Green Party has called for reforms to charter schools and increased regulation, arguing that first-come, first-served queue systems have created oversubscribed schools where children need to have their names put down from the day of their birth. This leads to exclusion and large differences between the schools, he argues.

And the Green Party's coalition partner, the centre-left Social Democrats, has proposed tougher measures on charter schools, including banning all religious charter schools, stopping "the over-establishment of schools", and introducing measures to stop a "race for profits" among charter schools.

Several of the parties in opposition disagree. Rather than reforms to the charter school system, the Liberals – who are in favour of schools continuing to be run for profit and to remove municipalities' right to veto the establishment of charter schools – want to reform municipally run schools, with control reverting to the state.

The shift from state control to municipal control of schools was another change introduced in the 1990s; the high number of reforms brought in around the same time makes it tough to draw any links between specific policies and the developments in results and segregation.

"To create equal schools, the municipally-run schools should become state-run. Charter schools are already under state control, even if they're privately run, and we want muncipal schools to do that too. Then, all students would be guaranteed an equal education, wherever they lived," Granath from the Liberals told The Local.

Another policy that often comes under fire is the free choice of school; currently, parents can choose to send their child to any school they want, rather than a lottery system or catchment areas. Schools then receive funding in correlation with the number of students enrolled. However, studies have shown that families of higher socioeconomic status are more likely to take advantage of the option to choose schools.

The Liberals want to preserve the fria skolvalet, with Granath saying: "It gives all students and parents a chance to choose which school suits them best, regardless of economic and social conditions." In fact, he proposed making the choice compulsory – currently parents do not have to make an active choice, in which case their child is sent to the nearest school with vacancies. 

"Instead of limiting the choice of schools, everyone, including new arrivals, should make an active choice of school. Parents and students should get better conditions for making a well-informed choice through improved information, clearer comparisons along with openness and transparency through easily accessible admissions portals – preferably in more languages," Granath explained.


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