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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
Students attend a class at the Drottning Blanka secondary school in Järfälla, Sweden. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

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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EDUCATION

Swedish Schools Inspectorate: English school must abolish dress code

The Swedish Schools Inspectorate have given the Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES) in Täby until January 27th to abolish its dress code, stating that it limits students' individual freedoms.

Swedish Schools Inspectorate: English school must abolish dress code

The Schools Inspectorate initiated an inquiry after reports of strict dress codes at IES in Täby. In interviews, students told inspectors that they were not allowed to have their bra straps on show, wear low-cut tops or wear skirts or shorts shorter than “a student’s fingertips when standing with their arm by their side and fingers straight”.

Those who did not follow the rules were given warnings, with students telling inspectors that the rules affected girls more than boys, newspaper Dagens Nyheter (DN) reports.

DN reports that during a presentation, school leadership went through a dress code stating, among other things, that students were not allowed to wear a certain type of leggings, and that trousers should be high-waisted as students were not allowed to show their hips or underwear.

The newspaper also reports that some girls said they were forced to buy different clothes so they could be used at school and that they used different items of clothing in their free time.

According to the school’s headteacher, school leadership has never implemented a specific dress code, although the previous leadership was “stricter” on clothing, which may have affected the environment at the school.

However, the School Inspectorate’s assessment of the situation is that the school’s rules in practice mean that students are not allowed to wear certain clothes. This goes against Sweden’s skollagen or ‘school law’, which states that schools have a mission to convey the importance of an individual’s right to freedom and integrity.

IES in Täby has until January 27th to show the Schools Inspectorate evidence that the dress code has been scrapped.

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