Meeting Sweden's freedom fighters
Mothers Louise Andersson and Louise Westerberg had no background in education other than 12 years spent on the receiving end. The two women were determined, however, that their children would not be educated in state schools.
They disapproved of changes that had been made since their own school days and were tired of their children's complaints. So, in the mid 1990s, when a reform was introduced in Sweden that allowed people other than local authorities to receive government funding to run schools, they set up the Viktor Rydberg Gymnasium in a wealthy suburb of Stockholm.
In the first year the school opened, it attracted 100 pupils; today the women run four of the most successful schools in the country.
"I thought it would be interesting to try to make something better and different," says Ms Andersson. "The high-level idea is that we want to entertain your brain; it is also to have art and science together."
It was never their intention to run four schools but because demand for places was so high, they felt compelled to create more space, says Ms Westerberg.
This story of parents creating something exceptional has opened Education Secretary Michael Russell's mind to the Swedish model. He visited the Viktor Rydberg Foundation's school in Jarlaplan last Tuesday, along with The TESS, which joined him on his whistle-stop tour of Finland and Sweden. Mr Russell found the school, which opened in 2003 just outside Stockholm, "very impressive" and offered to facilitate discussions between Scottish local authorities interested in the model and Stockholm.
"The school was much less exclusive than I'd expected," he said. "This was a school for kids like any other kids, who wanted to do specialist things. It was in no sense a school that excluded or gave itself airs."
These are not private schools in the way that we understand them in Scotland, he continued. "They do not charge fees - they get paid per capita in the same way other schools are paid. They are state schools provided by somebody else."
In Sweden, there are 635 independent primaries and 360 independent high schools. More than 10 per cent of Swedish pupils under 16 attend independent schools; over 16, the figure rises to 20 per cent.
Viktor Rydberg schools are named after the famous Swedish writer, who was an inspector in Djursholms Samskola, a school set up in the 19th century, where the foundation found its first home.
Before launching the Viktor Rydberg brand, Ms Andersson and Ms Westerberg were entrepreneurs who owned interior design businesses with their husbands.
"We really started this to try to interest the kids in the back row," says Ms Andersson.
It has not quite worked out like that, however. The foundation that runs the schools is obliged by the government to allocate places by student grades alone. Given the popularity of the schools, only the most gifted and talented will make it. This also has an impact on the gender mix - 60 per cent of students are girls, because they get higher grades.
For students Axel Ryder and Emma Nordin, 19, and in their final year at the Jarlaplan School, all the hard work and effort to get here was worth it. They opted to come because of the school's excellent reputation and the fact that its specialisms - the arts and social sciences - appealed to them.
"It attracts the most enthusiastic students and teachers," says Axel, who is on the theatre studies programme and will soon be off to London to audition for theatre school.
According to Emma, who is specialising in social sciences, most of the students who have chosen the more academic route look with envy at the cool free-thinking musicians who chill out in the corridors strumming guitars, or the elfin-like dancers who prance around in their stocking soles.
"They are higher status," she says with a smile.
The two halves do mix, however, with core subjects studied together. It is a balance that works well, says history and English teacher Linda Wheatley: "The arts students loosen up the academics and the academics straighten up the arts students."
Most of the science students take electives in arts subjects - picture and form, theatre, music and dance. Emma believes she might be unique - she uses all of her free choice periods for maths - but she revels in the lively atmosphere created by the arts students and has taken theatre studies as part of her core curriculum, where she's obliged to do something creative.
Teachers are also positive about the school. Ms Wheatley is from Ireland but trained as a teacher in Sweden. She enjoys working in the Viktor Rydberg school because, with a maximum intake of 430 students, it is far smaller than a state upper secondary, which typically will cater for 700- 800 students.
"The school here is a small organisation, whereas the state school I worked in was enormous," she says. "You are closer to the person who makes the decisions and there is a drive and ambition. It's a very positive place."
Fredrik Backman, who teaches maths, says: "When I first started, I worked in a state school and always enjoyed it. I would probably work in one again, but nothing has drawn me away from here."
Teaching is closely evaluated in Viktor Rydberg schools but staff also evaluate the leadership, says Ms Westerberg.
Not all Swedish independent schools are like these, however. According to the head of the inspectorate, Marie-Helene Ahnborg, most teach a general education, much like that offered in the municipal schools.
Per Thullberg, director general of the Swedish Education Agency, agrees: "At the beginning, we thought it would be driven by parents or some sort of pedagogical idea, but today we can see it's mainly big companies," he says.
Viktor Rydberg schools don't make a profit but many independent schools in Sweden are there to make money.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, believe the Viktor Rydberg founders. In the short term, the foundation will work because they are passionate about the schools they have started - they are their babies and they watch over them intently, explains Ms Westerberg. But when they are no longer able to take such an interest, she wonders what might happen. A company looking to make a profit out of the schools would, she argues, look after its investment.
"Right now we have the best of everything, but who knows what will happen in a generation?" she says. "Now we have four very good schools which are highly rated, but Louise and I are working on this daily. In the future, it may have to be some other organisation."
Maths teacher Fredrik Backman disagrees with the idea that schools should be allowed to make a profit. He argues the only way to make money out of a school is to have more pupils and fewer teachers or to decrease teaching hours. Some schools were already teaching pupils for just half the day, he claimed.
In Sweden, the vast majority of people agree that free schools have been a good idea, and while the reform was introduced by a right-wing party, all political hues are now in favour of the development, he says, even the teaching unions that initially wanted nothing to do with them.
The performance of Swedish pupils and equity between schools has, however, been in decline. And there is increasing segregation, which could be down to free schools, says Mr Thullberg.
"We had decentralisation in the system and free choice, with the new schools. But it is mostly students from families with high educational backgrounds who used these opportunities, and that has led to an increase in segregation between schools."
Declining performance has not been helped by the new schools, he continues, but he does not blame them; rather, he points the finger at a curriculum which, as he sees it, gave teachers too much autonomy. In a matter of days he will present a new, more prescriptive, curriculum to the government.
It is "natural" to give people the freedom to choose, says Christer Blomkvist, head of Stockholm's education inspection and analysis unit. But hard times lie ahead for free schools, he predicts.
"The number of upper secondary students is in decline and competition between schools is very tough. Some upper secondaries, I think, will already be having trouble now. I think they will have large problems in the next three or four years finding students."
The UK model
The Conservative Party has been banging the drum for free schools for some time and has pledged to introduce the system to England if it wins the General Election.
According to Michael Gove, the shadow health secretary, these schools would increase parental choice and drive up standards in state schools by introducing fiercer competition for pupils. He would like to see 2,000 open their doors.
The model being proposed by the Conservatives would only allow not-for- profit organisations to set up schools, but the party has said it would be open to the idea of private companies running them.
This is the model British journalist Toby Young envisages. He is in talks with two Swedish for-profit organisations - International English School and Kunskapsskolan - to carry out the day-to-day running of the school he hopes to set up for his four children, and others, in England.
"The main reason we want to bring in a provider is to address the issues of continuation that can occur with parent-founded schools - what do you do once the first cohort has gone through the school?" he asks.
The Labour Party has derided free schools. What happens to the children left behind in failing schools when other pupils leave, asked England's Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families Ed Balls at a pre- election debate organised by The TES.
The model was not about "schools helping schools but schools set against schools," he told the Association of School and College Leaders earlier this month.