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How will the Swedish government’s funding plans for free schools affect students?

The Swedish government has submitted a proposal to change state-issued school funding, offering more to state-run schools. What does this mean, and how could it affect students?

How will the Swedish government's funding plans for free schools affect students?
Three free schools who could be affected by the proposal: Vittra Jensen, Sjölins gymnasium and ProCivitas gymnasium in Södermalm, Stockholm. Photo Stefan Jerrevång/TT

What’s the government proposing?

At a press conference on February 10th, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Schools Minister Lina Axelsson Kihlblom proposed alterations to how school funding is split between state schools and free schools. Currently, both types of school receive equal funding.

The new proposal would mean that state schools would get more money per student than free schools, to reflect their extra responsibilities – such as the need to be able to guarantee that there will always be enough places for students in need and the fact that they must accept all students, not just those who are most likely to succeed.

Andersson stated that more proposals were to come, including a ban on mobile phones in class, and “stricter proposals so that the process of choosing a school will be more equal for all students, with equal chances and opportunities for all”.

What are free schools?

Since reforms carried out by the then centre-right government in the 1990s, independently run “free schools” (friskolor, or “charter schools”) have been allowed to receive public funding in return for following national education policy, and parents are able to freely enrol their child at them without being tied to geographical catchment areas.

For proponents, the schools contribute to a cost-effective, competitive and efficient approach to learning, where talented students are allowed to shine and choose their own future. For critics, they increase segregation, lead to grade inflation and put the schools’ focus on marketing themselves to attract as many students (and thereby funding) as possible, rather than improving the quality of teaching.

Not all free schools are run by profit-making companies, but some are. They’re facing renewed scrutiny in Sweden following a series of reports in Swedish newspapers, including The Local. The ruling Social Democrats are also preparing to campaign in this year’s election on a pledge to forbid the owners of free schools from taking out profits while at the same time receiving funding from the tax payer.

Why does the government want to reform the system?

Firstly, the government argues that reforming the system would make schools in Sweden more equal, meaning that state schools would receive compensation for their extra responsibilities.

In addition, Andersson sees this as a way to “get rid of market schools” – as the for-profit free schools are usually referred to as in Sweden – who, she argues, lead to “increased segregation and greater divides between people”.

What could this mean for students?

It is unclear exactly how this could affect students in free schools, if it comes into effect.

The plan is targeted specifically at what Andersson calls “market schools”, for-profit free schools owned by companies or individuals who, in some cases, states Andersson, use taxpayers’ money “to buy luxury villas on the east coast of Florida or go to sex clubs in Thailand”.

However, there does not appear to be a distinction between market schools and other free schools in the proposal, meaning that all free schools could be affected, if it is passed by parliament.

Some are against the idea, such as Aftonbladet’s Andreas Cervenka, who writes that this “could cause for-profit free schools to lower their costs even more to compensate for the lack of funding, which could lead to fewer teachers, lower-quality school food or messy classrooms”.

The Swedish Association for Independent Schools is also against the proposal. The association’s CEO, Ulla Hamilton, told newswire TT that the association considers it “irresponsible for the government to announce such a proposal”.

“It was very clear that they couldn’t answer questions about what the consequences could be,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton was also concerned that there could be a risk that free schools had no choice but to close, telling TT that “there is definitely a risk. (Education Minister) Anna Ekström has previously said that the reduction could be around 8.5 percent of school funding. That represents a risk for free schools that they can’t make it work financially.”

TT asked Hamilton whether she was of the opinion that every free school in the country could be at risk, to which she replied: “there’s a risk that could happen, it depends on what the effects are”.

With regards to students in state-run schools, it’s not clear how they would be affected by the proposal either, if it were to be approved.

Students in these schools would have more money per head, but neither Kihlblom nor Andersson was able to state exactly how much the difference in funding would be if these changes came into effect.

How likely is it that this will happen?

It seems unlikely that the proposal will be passed. The Swedish National Audit Office (Riksrevisionen) announced last week that they plan to investigate school funding – something which Hamilton thinks will affect the proposal’s chances of making it through parliament.

“I don’t think (that the proposal will be approved). The reasonable thing would be for the other parties to say ‘let’s wait to see what the National Audit Office’s analysis says, and then make our decision’,” she told TT.

Additionally, Andersson herself seemed unconvinced that the proposal would pass through parliament, stating in the press conference that this was “far from certain”.

If it does, the government has set July 1st, 2022, as the date at which the law would come into effect, with any decisions on funding proposed to be effective from 2024.

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For members


What’s the Swedish Christian Democrats’ abortion contract all about?

Ebba Busch, leader of Sweden's Christian Democrats on Monday presented an "abortion contract", which she wants all of Sweden's party leaders to sign. What's going on?

What's the Swedish Christian Democrats' abortion contract all about?

What’s happened? 

Ebba Busch, leader of Sweden’s Christian Democrat party, called a press conference on Monday in which she presented a document that she called “an abortion contract”, which was essentially a pledge to safeguard the right of women in Sweden to have an abortion.  

“There is room for signatures from all eight party leaders,” she said. “I have already signed on behalf of the Christian Democrats.” 

What does the so-called “abortion contract” say? 

The document itself is fairly uncontroversial.

It states simply that Sweden’s law on abortion dates back to 1974, and that it grants women the right to an abortion up until the 18th week of pregnancy, with women seeking abortions later in their pregnancy required to get permission from the National Board of Health and Welfare. 

“Those of us who have signed this document support Sweden’s abortion legislation and promise to defend it if it comes under attack from forces both within our country and from outside,” the document reads.  

Why have the Christian Democrats produced it? 

The decision of the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs Wade, and so allow US states to ban abortion has aroused strong feelings in Sweden, as elsewhere, and Busch is seeking to send a strong signal to distance her own Christian party from the US religious right. 

Abortion has been a recurring issue within the Christian Democrats with several politicians and party members critical of abortion. 

Lars Adaktusson, a Christian Democrat MP, was found by the Dagens Nyheter newspaper to have voted against abortion 22 times when he was a member of the European parliament. 

The party has also in the past campaigned for the right of midwives and other medical professionals who are ethically opposed to abortion not to have to take part in the procedure. 

So why aren’t all the other party leaders signing the document? 

Sweden’s governing Social Democrats, and their Green Party allies, dismissed the contract as a political gimmick designed to help the Christian Democrats distance themselves from elements of their own party critical of abortion. 

“It would perhaps be good if Ebba Busch did some homework within her own party to check that there’s 100 percent support for Sweden’s abortion legislation,” Magdalena Andersson, Sweden’s prime minister, said. “That feels like a more important measure than writing contracts between party leaders and trying to solve it that way.”  

In a debate on Swedish television, Green Party leader Märta Stenevi argued that it would be much more significant if Busch’s own MPs and MEPs all signed the document. 

It wasn’t other party leaders who needed to show commitment to abortion legislation, but “her own MPs, MEPs, and not least her proposed government partners in the Sweden Democrats and even some within the Moderate Party”. 

She said it made her “very very worried” to see that the Christian Democrats needed such a contract. “That’s why I see all this more as a clear sign that we need to move forward with protecting the right to abortion in the constitution,” she said. 

How have the other right-wing parties reacted? 

The other right-wing parties have largely backed Busch, although it’s unclear if any other party leaders are willing to actually sign the document. 

Tobias Billström, the Moderates’ group parliamentary leader, retweeted a tweet from Johan Paccamonti, a Stockholm regional politician with the Moderate Party, which criticised the Social Democrats for not signing it, however. 

“It seems to be more important to blow up a pretend conflict than to sign the Christian Democrats’ contract or look at the issue of [including abortion rights in] the constitution, like the Moderates, Liberals and Centre Party want to,” Paccamonti wrote. 

The Liberal Party on Sunday proposed protecting abortion rights in the Swedish constitution, a proposal which has since been backed by the Moderate party and the Centre Party