Drive for free schools shifts gear

27th November 2009 at 00:00
The state-funded, privately run model favoured by the UK Tories leads to unusual newspaper ads in Sweden, as Ben Kersley reports

A 28-page supplement came with my morning paper today. On the cover was a sprightly looking boy with a trophy, and the headline "Fartfyllt". This wasn't a special on teenage flatulence, but a guide to choosing the right sixth form or high school (or, as they call them here, gymnasium).

This kid is clearly having a whale of a time at Mjolby's Racing Academy, where track time in cars and go-carts is firmly on the curriculum. Fartfyllt roughly translates as "full throttle".

In Sweden, schools tend either to be kommunala, which means they are run by the local council, or privately run, state-funded friskolor - "free schools", which the Conservatives would like to copy in the UK.

As the number of friskolor has risen, competition for places has become fiercer. Call it gimmickry or marketing, further education has never been more attractive - on the face of it, at least.

I visited the bear pit of local schools promoting themselves at Linkoping's conference centre, and clearly first impressions were everything.

"R U 4 REAL?" was the slogan that the Real Gymnasiet used to lure students. Pretty cool to have an English slogan, but no one had told them the phrase is generally said with a tone of disbelief and sarcasm, as in: "You're going to that dump? Are you for real?"

Another gymnasium used "training for reality", suggesting the education offered by the other schools was only adequate for some kind of fantasy existence.

The toughest competition was between two business schools. There were photographs of teenagers in a pastiche of big business - slicked-back hair, suit and tie, cocky grin. It was all very uncomfortable.

Some stands were manned by students, others by staff. One can only assume it had been decided that the students were either the best or worst advertisement for the school.

Either that, or the business students had refused to work for the fee they had been offered.

Choosing where to go for further education is not a decision to be taken lightly and it was reassuring to see, judging by the enthusiastic smiles and bundles of brochures, that parents were taking it very seriously. Their kids dawdled behind, occasionally distracted by a brightly coloured poster or an offer of a free iPod.

Ultimately, it seems, it's freebies and gimmicks that are winning students over as gymnasium becomes about consumer choice. Be it the racing cars in Mjolby, free laptops or glossy photos of teenagers looking ecstatic about education, students are asking, "What's in it for me, right now?"

But prospective students should exercise caution as choosing a school can be an education in itself. One school in Kungalv, near Gothenburg, offered free driving lessons and students rushed to sign up. But the offer worked too well. Doing the sums, the school was forced quietly to withdraw the offer, leaving students feeling slightly ripped off. A valuable lesson indeed, and one that Britain's future "free schools" should bear in mind when they start advertising for prospective students.

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