A Swedish company is planning to make a profit in England by running a chain of free schools under its own brand.
Ministers do not currently allow private operators to profit from their own state-funded schools, although they can earn management fees by providing services to schools run by other groups.
But Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES) aims to effectively end this distinction while remaining within the law, by linking up with parents and other non-profit groups prepared to hand over practical control of their free schools and carry the IES brand.
The company, which runs a chain of about 17 free schools in Sweden, has revealed it is in talks with eight potential secondary or all-age free school operators in England.
The NUT claims its plans prove that the free schools policy is about "privatisation". IES's potential partners include groups of parents, teachers and an unnamed local authority that it says is "seriously interested".
But for the deals to go ahead, IES said its partners would have to hand over a large degree of decision-making powers to the company.
Although interested groups would still have legal control of the governing body, IES UK manager Jodie King said it would want to decide on the head and much else besides.
"Let's say that they (school governors) came down with a decision we didn't agree with at all and we felt would jeopardise the students' success, then it goes without saying that we can't continue to run the school unless we can use the methods that we know work," Ms King said.
She added that any profit would be split between the company's shareholders and funding further expansion.
In return IES was prepared to fly the heads it selected to Canada or the US to find high-quality staff. It would look after school policy and structures, staff selection and training and "everything to do with running a school".
The company has applied to appear on a Government list of 12 pre-approved providers of educational services for state-funded schools.
It took more than a decade for IES to build up its chain of schools in Sweden, where its internationalist method of teaching English attracted pupils.
Ms King said producing "literate and confident" students was its "unique selling point" for England and that the company planned to expand at the same steady rate as it has done in the past, focusing on "quality not quantity".
NUT general secretary Christine Blower said: "This is a clear indication that public money will be used to run a school for profit and that is what we have always said - that this is explicitly the privatisation of education."
A Department for Education spokesperson said: "Governing bodies are allowed to sub-contract elements of the management of the school to other organisations, including private companies.
"Any contracts must be awarded through a fair and open competition. Contracts are for fixed terms, and have to be re-tendered when this term expires."
PROVIDERS - Chain reaction
Kunskapsskolan, another major free school provider that operates for profit in Sweden, is already running academies in England.
The group, which manages two academies in Richmond, southwest London, and plans to open a third in Suffolk, has a chain of 33 schools in Sweden that it runs for profit.
Unlike IES, Kunskapsskolan has so far been content to operate as a not-for-profit academy sponsor in England, but it has been lobbying ministers to loosen the rules on profit-making in schools, alongside private schools company Gems.