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School uniforms: why the controversy?

For a country praised for its commitment to equality, Sweden's attitude towards school uniforms has long been an uneasy and adversarial one, often creating both debate and controversy.

School uniforms: why the controversy?
Max and Oscar Hermans

As recently as 2017, the Swedish Schools Inspectorate ruled against an international school in the city of Norrköping, which warned that students could be disciplined if they didn’t wear their uniform “correctly”, was “not following constitutional requirements regarding the contents of its rules” and that students’ clothes “should be seen as an individual expression and determined by the students themselves”.

It’s an ostensibly odd Swedish quirk. After all, this is a nation that adheres to ‘Jantelagen’ which is a foundational pillar of Swedish society. Put simply, the cultural tradition embodies the belief that no one is better than anyone else.

What could be more Jante than a school uniform, the great equaliser of the teenage years? No oneupmanship about who has the fanciest trainers, or the most expensive jeans. No bullying of kids whose parents can’t afford pricey fashions. Everyone dresses the same and can concentrate on their schoolwork.

But the Law of Jante loses out to another unwritten rule – that Sweden cherishes the individuality of its children more than most nations. Children should have agency. They should not be forced to wear clothes they do not want to wear.

But what if some children actually want to wear a school uniform? What if they think it’s actually quite cool?

One of Sweden’s oldest schools – Sigtuna Humanistiska Läroverket (SSHL) – take a different approach. This coeducational independent boarding school, located just north of Stockholm overlooking Lake Mälaren, is one of the few Swedish schools that has a school uniform. And it’s very proud of its heritage.

According to Carina Nilsson, the principal of SSHL, the school’s parents and students love the school uniform. “It’s usually the first thing they ask us about, even before the books – ‘when can we have the uniform?’ ”

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The school uniform at SSHL is not compulsory. “We ask students to wear it on Wednesdays and on special occasions, especially when they are representing the school. But some children ask us if they can wear it more often. It’s totally up to them.”

Max and Oscar Hermans are 13-year-old twins whose parents moved to Sweden from the UK last summer. At their previous school the twins, like most British children, wore compulsory uniforms, and they’re totally comfortable with having to wear one once a week and on special occasions.

Oscar likes the uniform. “It feels a lot like wearing a suit, because it’s mandatory to wear a belt with the trousers, which I think is cool. Honestly, it makes me feel quite grown up.”

Max feels proud when he’s out in the local town with other SSHL students wearing their uniforms. “It feels good. In some ways, it makes you feel more responsible. Like you are representing the school almost. You’re part of the school. Because you know, you can see all the students are wearing this uniform. But it’s not such a big thing for us, I don’t think, because we’re used to wearing uniforms in the UK.”

Max and Oscar at school in the UK

But Max agrees that, on the days SSHL students wear the uniform, there’s a lot less boasting about the casual clothes they have. “On uniform days there’s none of this chat about the coolest shoes or the best clothes. Everyone is a lot calmer.”

Oscar agrees. “As well as liking how smart it makes me feel, I also like uniform days because I don’t have to think about what I’m going to wear. There’s no need to feel competitive or worry about what to wear. I just put on my uniform and I’m ready to go.”

Pia Lötbom is responsible for buying and distributing the uniforms at SSHL. “I was a student here 40 years ago. I also have three children and all of them have been here, and I’ve been working at the school for 28 years.”

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Pia is very supportive of SSHL’s uniform. “I think it’s a good thing. First of all, it’s very good marketing for the school. And it’s good for behaviour. When you see the students in town dressed up, I think they behave very differently. I think they are quite proud of wearing the uniform and representing the school respectfully. And I’ve had calls from other schools asking for me advice on how and where to get a uniform. I’ve had quite a lot of interest.”

Ultimately, though, whatever your opinion on uniforms, they are not at the core of a child’s education. To Swedish and many other international parents they can be an exotic accessory to their child’s education. But it’s the education that matters and SSHL excels in its approach to education.

Yet Carina, the school’s principal, has a special place in her heart for the uniform. 

“I get a real sense of pride when I see the students wearing their uniforms as they walk into assembly or on special occasions. I think, and I’m pretty sure they think, that it’s pretty special. It’s just a really nice tradition.” 

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EDUCATION

Sweden’s pioneering for-profit ‘free schools’ under fire

Thirty years after their introduction, Sweden is a world leader of "free schools" owned by for-profit companies that pay dividends to shareholders -- a business model hotly debated ahead of the general election on September 11, 2022.

Sweden's pioneering for-profit 'free schools' under fire

In a Stockholm suburb, the Drottning Blanka secondary school premises look more like an office space than your traditional red-brick institution with a schoolyard and gymnasium.

Like many of Sweden’s “free schools”, it doesn’t have its own building — instead, it rents a commercial space alongside other companies.

Here, performance is not just about how students do in exams.

“Free schools” owned by for-profit companies that pay dividends to shareholders are a business model hotly debated ahead of Sunday’s general election.

Drottning Blanka’s senior high school in Järfälla, Sweden. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

Almost a fifth of pupils in Sweden attend one of the country’s 3,900 primary and secondary “free schools”, first introduced in the country in the early 1990s.

Known elsewhere as voucher or charter schools, Sweden is a world leader in this type of schooling, which offers broader educational choice but still follows the Swedish curriculum.

Around three-quarters of “free schools” are owned by public limited companies and are for-profit, according to official statistics.

The remainder are either non-profit or run by foundations.

But in egalitarian Sweden, in order to ensure the “free schools” are accessible to all, they are 100 percent state-funded.

‘Party’s over’

Critics of the model decry the fact that taxpayer money intended for children’s education ends up in shareholders’ pockets.

“The party is over. The money from your taxes must go to schools, not to company profits,” thundered Social Democratic Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson in July.

She wants to put an end to “free schools” paying out dividends. Schools that do make profits should instead reinvest them in their establishments, she argues.

“The quest for profits in Swedish schools must end,” insisted Andersson, who is seeking the Social Democrats’ third straight mandate in the election.

Conceived as a right-wing reform in 1992 and supported by successive left and right governments since then, proponents of the system initially thought it would pave the way for a few schools run by individuals passionate about education.

Little did they know that it would give rise to a bevy of schools owned by private companies often listed on the stock exchange, such as AcadeMedia, Sweden’s biggest education group with annual revenues of over $1 billion (one billion euros).

The group recently announced — in the midst of the election campaign — that it would dish out 185 million kronor ($17 million) in dividends to shareholders, or about a quarter of its profits.

School Principal Pia Johansson poses for a photo at the Drottning Blankas secondary school in Jarfalla, Sweden. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

In the capital’s Järfälla suburb, principal Pia Johansson says her school’s parent company, Drottning Blanka AB which runs 27 establishments and belongs to AcadeMedia, has a profit margin target of six percent.

She’s opposed to a ban on dividends. “It’s like any other business: people invest money, large sums of money,” she says.

“It’s natural that investors want some of the profit,” she adds, acknowledging however that there “maybe should be some kind of limit”.

That’s the approach preferred by the leader of the opposition conservative Moderates, Ulf Kristersson, who is challenging Andersson for the role of prime minister on Sunday.

“I’ve always said that dividends at well-run school groups are not a problem for Sweden. I’m much more concerned about the bad state-run schools,” he said after AcadeMedia announced its dividend payout.

His party has called for dividend caps on schools that “perform poorly” academically.

Dividend ban?

While a large majority of Swedes are in favour of “free schools”, most are opposed to them turning huge profits, opinion polls show.

Prime Minister Andersson in July appointed a special rapporteur to draw up proposals on how to move forward with a ban on dividends from schools.

The issue is tricky, as existing shareholders would likely demand costly compensation.

Detractors of the for-profit system say the model attracts irresponsible actors, and encourages owners to cut costs to maximise profits and inflate students’ grades in order to bring in “clients”.

Marcus Strömberg, AcadeMedia’s chief executive, insists, however, that profits are necessary.

A company’s budget surplus enables it to invest in and develop its educational operations and provide “security for students”, as well as “create more school places”, he told AFP.

By AFP’s Karine Pfenniger

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