Not-so free schools get public cash

SWEDEN

SWEDISH COUNCILS are paying schools to go private in an attempt to introduce more variety into the education system.

The number of children in private secondary schools has nearly doubled in the past five years, reaching 30,700 in 1998. This follows legislation to ease setting up of the so-called "free schools".

The schools take over existing buildings, inventory, staff and pupils, and the council hands over the same money per pupil that it gives its own schools.

Parents don't pay for their children to attend. They only fork out if their child stays for after-school leisure activities, to which the education authorities also contribute.

In return, councils gain a greater diversity of education, but with the same rules and curriculum as state schools.

Jan Bjorklund, Stockholm's schools mayor, said: "The advantage of free schools is that they give us greater variety. That's why we make it possible for municipal schools to change status." More than 8 per cent of Stockholm's pupils attended free schools last year.

The first state school in Stockholm to go private was Pilgrimsskolan. It started as a free school on January 1 this year and has 91 six to 10-year olds.

The change was sparked by by principal Gunilla Sagvik's frustration at time-consuming administrative activities that prevented her from doing what she wanted for her pupils. So she formed a private company, borrowed some money and applied to the council to take over the school.

Gunilla Sagvik's company rented the school buildings and bought the furniture and fittings from the council. The teachers were granted a year's leave of absence, and they and the pupils chose to follow their principal.

At Vasterholmsskolan, a Stockholm school, 70 per cent of parents support the move by principal Magnus Bondesson to set up a free school from August 2000. However, Lena Ekevid, who chairs the parents' association, is critical. "Starting a good free school needs parental commitment," she said. "What will happen to the children whose parents don't want them to attend a free school?"

Schools mayor Jan Bjorklund denies this is a problem, saying those children will be offered places in nearby state schools.

Free schools existed a decade ago, set up by idealist organisations. "All parents had to pay part of the running costs then and many free schools tended to be for the children of richer parents," Gunilla Sagvik says. "Now, they must be open to all children." There is no fee-paying private system in Sweden.

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