Increased debate about free schools standards and profits leads many people to question the current state of the Swedish education system.
By Emily Dickinson
Free schools, as the name implies, are available to anyone regardless of parents’ income, as they are funded by the state. They have almost replaced private schools in Sweden, and a range of special education based on the school.
But freedom of choice may have created a new type of segregation.
“Well-educated parents choose free schools for their children, and move them from the so-called ‘bad’ public schools, and they are then with peers from all the same social background,” said Anders Thoré, political advisor for education from Vänsterpartiet (The Left Party).
Although he said there is no clear evidence that says this creates segregation, Mikael Damberg, deputy chair of committee on education for Socialdemokraterna (The Social Democratic Party) agrees.
“Most people who choose a free school are motivated, so they get a different kind of students,” said Damberg.
Thoré believes that to solve this, all students should have to go to a school in their region so that all students are mixed together.
“The homogeneous nature of the schools is one explanation of dropping results in public schools,” said Thoré. “How your friends are doing; you’re influenced by them. Children inspire each other.”
Information needs to be available
Magnus Johansson, communication officer at Friskolornas Riksförbund (The Association of Free Schools), said the problem lies where uneducated parents do not choose a specific school for their child and send them to the residential public school instead of searching for another option.
“We want to make information about school quality available for those who aren’t active in choosing schools,” he said.
Presently, information about each school- both public and free schools- is available through the individual municipalities as well as from Skolverket (The Swedish National Agency for Education), but it is not easy to access, and not always relevant information.
“There is not much information about school achievement,” said Johansson. He suggested a national database available on the internet so schools can be compared according to quality.
“This doesn’t exist now,” he said. “It’s not a system that focuses on quality factors.”
Running a school like a business
Helén Angmo, deputy director general at Skolverket, said although some objective information is available that it is hard to get past the marketing of companies running free schools.
“You can’t be sure how good the school is based on their advertisements and open houses,” agreed Johansson.
Because the schools are privately owned, it is up to the company to recruit students. And there is incentive; for every pupil enrolled, the school receives more funding, but that also means competition between schools
Contributing to an overall decline in standards
Despite being criticized for low standards, information from national tests show better results from free schools than public schools.
“Children at free schools do better in tests because most of them come from a background of highly educated parents,” said Angmo. “The performance has nothing to do with the school being better.”
In both the public and free schools, explained Johansson, national tests are marked by the teacher in the classroom. A mere ten per cent of tests are taken in by the Skolinspektionen to make sure that marking is corresponding with students overall grades.
“How can we really know what students are learning?” said Johansson, adding that it would to too expensive to check all tests.
“If you’re at a school where almost every student gets good results, than more students want to come,” explained Damberg. “That’s the logical way to look at a market-like situation, when you compete among students.”
Thoré said that with the current free school system, “School and education is a market, and children are the customers.”