What Swedish free schools reveal about social segregation

They’re watching us over in England. kemorgan65, CC BY-NC-SA

School-based education is undergoing significant changes across much of the developed world with private providers increasingly taking over the delivery of education from public providers. In both England and Sweden, independent schools have been established which are privately owned but publicly funded. Known as academies and free schools in England and independent “free schools” – fristående skolor or friskolor – in Sweden, these new types of schools are raising questions about social segregation in the education system.

In Sweden, more than one in ten comprehensive schools and nearly four out of ten upper secondary schools are now privately owned, with the majority being for-profit. They receive per capita funding from the home municipality of the pupils who attend.

The schools are concentrated in large urban conurbations – Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg. More than half of all independent comprehensive schools and nearly nine out of ten independent upper secondary schools are owned by a corporation or stock market company.

Such schools are vulnerable to the vagaries of the market. In 2013, JB Education decided to sell 19 of its high schools in Sweden and close down eight others. This was because the Danish private equity group Axcel, which bought the chain in 2008, decided it could no longer continue to cover the company’s losses.

Sponsored academies

In England, there are several types of academies, including sponsored and converter academies and free schools. All are outside local authority control and have a legally binding contract, or funding agreement, with the education department.

Sponsored academies were first established by Labour to replace failing schools. Sponsors, such as businesses were initially expected to make a contribution to capital costs. In 2010, following the election of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, the Academies Act was passed allowing state-maintained primary and secondary schools to apply to “convert” to academy status.

It also allowed for the introduction of free schools – all-ability, publicly funded schools set up by different groups, such as parents, community or faith groups, charities, and private, fee-charging schools.

All types of academies, including free schools, are owned by non-profit trusts and are funded by a government agency. They are responsible for their own admissions, are not required to adhere to the national curriculum (although they must have a “balanced and broadly based” curriculum), or regulations relating to teachers’ pay and conditions.

By January 2013, 50% of secondary schools and 6% of primary schools were academies. There are also 174 free schools. The massive increase is related to the introduction of converter academies. Some academies are part of academy chains, such as the Academies Enterprise Trust, United Learning, E-ACT, the Harris Federation and Absolute Return for Kids (ARK). One Swedish chain, which owns for-profit independent schools in Sweden, Kunskapsskolan, is also an academy sponsor.

Waiting lists

Admissions policies are important as they are likely to be associated, at least in part, with the distribution of pupils between different schools. In Sweden, most pupils go to the school closest to their home, but parents can apply to other schools. The decision as to whether or not a pupil should be admitted to a school is taken by either the municipality or the independent school.

For comprehensive schools owned by the municipality, the main admissions criteria are proximity of the child’s home to the school and whether or not their sibling also attend. In the case of fristående skolor, admissions criteria include prioritising siblings of children already at the school, the time that the child’s name has been on the waiting list (known as “queuing”) and proximity to the school.

However, there were revelations in 2013 about independent comprehensive schools in Sweden selecting pupils on the basis of academic aptitude.

There are differences between the school composition of independent comprehensive schools and municipality schools. Independent schools have a larger proportion of girls, a larger proportion of pupils with parents who have continued with education following upper secondary school, and a larger proportion of pupils with a foreign background.

At the upper secondary level, there are different admissions requirements for schools with vocational programmes and those preparing students for higher education. Grade-based admission rules can be used by independent schools, and are also used in Stockholm. They have been associated with increased segregation by ability, family background and immigrant status.

Three choices

In England, admissions are subject to a mandatory School Admissions Code. Parents or carers must be allowed to express a minimum of three “choices” or “preferences” for publicly-funded schools.

If there are more applicants than places, admissions criteria are used to decide who should be admitted. These typically include children in public care, distance between home and school, siblings and in the case of schools with a religious character, religion (unlike in Sweden).

When a school converts to an academy, these criteria tend not to change, so it is too early to say if academisation will result in the composition of schools changing. However, intakes to sponsored secondary academies have changed with a year-on-year decrease in the proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This may be because middle-class families consider academies a viable option, but did not consider their predecessor schools to be so. While it might be argued that this reduces access to disadvantaged pupils, it can also be argued that more socially and academically mixed schools are preferable to schools catering predominantly for one particular social group.

The extent to which differential school access and segregation can be attributed to the introduction of independent schools in Sweden and academies in England, is still far from clear. It would be wrong to assume that there is a single, simple explanation. However, given this changing landscape it will be important to evaluate what the longer term effects are of a market-based approach to the school system.