Top students creamed off

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
TES correspondents report on the impact of market forces on pupil recruitment in Sweden and the US


When Elin Deboussard, 17, decided which sixth-form school she wanted to go to she didn't give state schools a second thought.

"Everyone knows the independent schools are better. The teachers are younger and more engaged," she said last week as she started at Viktor Rydberg Jarlaplan, where she is taking an arts programme specialising in drama. "There's also more prestige if you go to one."

Elin is typical of middle school leavers across Sweden who are taking advantage of increased school choice since the government ended the state monopoly of upper secondaries a decade ago. Stockholm education authority announced last week that the number of pupils attending independent sixth-form schools in the capital had doubled in the past four years.

All Swedish pupils are eligible to apply to independent schools, which are funded by a voucher system. This has put state schools under pressure to attract students as independent schools are creaming off the brightest pupils.

Bjorn Johansson, a spokesman for the Stockholm authority, said: "Many state schools are suffering under the competition from the independent sector."

Independents such as Viktor Rydberg Odenplan get so many applications that only pupils with the highest grades are accepted. "The more we do to ensure we have a stellar reputation, offering specialist option courses and closer ties with the business community, the more qualified our intake is," said Dr Margret Benedikz, an English teacher at Viktor Rydberg Odenplan.

The independent schools were designed to be centres of excellence, specialising in national programmes that all upper-secondary pupils are required to follow. Some programmes, such as construction or business and administration, are vocationally-oriented. Others, such as natural science and social science, are intended to prepare pupils for university.

Some independents tried to charge fees, but the government quickly intervened, introducing a voucher system where the local council has to provide independent schools with resources equivalent to those given to state schools on a per-pupil basis. However, independents are also free to seek donations from parents and sponsorship from companies.

According to Pernilla Hemmingsson, headteacher of Viktor Rydberg Jarlaplan, the competition has brought an entrepreneurial spirit to Swedish education.

"All schools, no matter whether they're independent or state-run increasingly need to make themselves attractive to applicants," she said. "We get students from all over the region coming here because of our dance, theatre, art and music profiles. We're able to offer pupils a greater degree of specialisation that they just can't get in the municipal schools."

Popular state schools, such as Kungsholmen, have revamped their programmes to compete. Kungsholmen offers the natural science or social science national programme in English. Others emphasise technology or sports facilities.

However, they have yet to convince pupils like Helena Eckerstrand, 16, a pupil at Viktor Rydberg Jarlaplan who believes independents offer more choice.

"I didn't want to go anywhere else, because I wanted to study dance. If I'd gone to state school I'd probably have had to take natural science or social science.

"But here I get the best of both worlds: I can study dance but if I break my leg or ruin my back dancing, I'll still be able to apply for nursing or law or whatever afterwards."

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