View from here - Drive for free schools shifts gear

4th December 2009 at 00:00
The state-funded, privately-run school model favoured by the 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 (on both sides of the border) would like to copy in the UK. As the number of friskolor has risen, competition for places has become fiercer.

"R U 4 REAL?" was the slogan that the Real Gymnasiet in the town of Linkoping 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 can be between two business schools. One showed photographs of teenagers in a pastiche of big business - slicked-back hair, suit and tie, cocky grin. It was all very uncomfortable.

Ultimately, it seems, it is 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.

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