Free schools or alternative schooling has always been a topic of interest in our community here in Japan. So I am posting below an article on the Swedish (chain of) free schools called Kunskapsskolan.
More like university than school: the Swedish academies coming to England
System seen as flavour of month by parties anxious to improve standards
Polly Curtis in Stockholm
Monday April 14, 2008
It’s not immediately obvious when the school day starts at Kunskapsskolan Nacka, in a suburb of Stockholm. Students drift in at around 8.30. There are mobile phones on the table and iPods plugged into ears but no timetable, no set lessons and little sense of a traditional classroom.
It’s like a Swedish version of Summerhill, the progressive school where pupils are allowed to opt in and out of classes according to their mood. But beneath the apparent chaos is a highly structured plan.
Each child has a weekly target in every subject. Fail and their personal tutor will want to know why at their weekly meeting. So will their parents, who can follow the minutiae of their progress online. These teenagers have targets, but complete freedom in deciding how to get there. It’s more like a university than a school.
Anders Hultins, co-founder of the chain of 30 Kunskapsskolan schools, said: “We are popular in Sweden as an alternative to the teacher-led factory model of education. When you see a normal school you will find classrooms of equal sizes and a bell ringing; there is factory thinking behind that. What students do in Kunskapsskolan is decide for themselves, for their own needs rather than for collective needs. There are no bells in our schools or a schedule that you repeat every week.”
Now Kunskapsskolan, or “knowledge school” is coming to Britain. It has been named preferred bidder for two academies in Richmond, London. It has its eye on five new schools in Cambridge and more in the Thames Gateway house-building scheme. The ambition is for 30 academies as well as a handful of profit-generating independent schools in England over the next 10 years.
It is, according to its proponents, the purest form of “personalised” learning, which the government is promising in England.
Karl, 15, a pupil at the school says: “It all comes down to personal responsibility. You shouldn’t go to this school if you can’t take your own responsibility. You can slack off whenever you like, sure you have to make up for it later, but if you feel tired one day you can slack off and fix it another day. A lot of people do find that very difficult.”
Julia, also 15, loves the school, but makes one criticism. “Because it’s so free some people are a bit loud perhaps in the corridors. It could be a little more quiet and calm.”
In Sweden the whole concept of personalised learning is deeply controversial. Dr Susanne Wiborg, lecturer in international education, Institute of Education, London, says: “It’s a very anti-Swedish system. It’s a move away from that strong sense of communal education. It suits parents to think their child will be the centre of attention. But at a societal level it can have a different effect when children are no longer working communally.”
Others say the shift is needed in a country that has the saying “Lagom ar bast”, which translates as “enough is as good as a feast”. This celebration of egalitarianism has left some parents unhappy with the public schools and clamouring to get their kids into schools such as the Kunskapsskolan chain.
Kunskapsskolan is the largest chain of independent or “free” schools in Sweden, which make up 10% of schools. They are state funded, but not state-controlled, and free for students.
The system is flavour of the month in England, where politicians of all hues want to know how Sweden tops international education league tables. They were an inspiration for the government’s academy programme. The Liberal Democrats and Tories both have similarly influenced policies.
Sam Freedman, research director of the right-of-centre thinktank the Policy Exchange, says: “All the political parties are fighting to see who can come up with the most Swedish system.”
But there’s a fundamental difference between the Swedish model and those being discussed in Westminster: in Sweden independent schools are allowed to make a profit. Freedman points out that both Kunskapsskolan and another American company, Edison, are for-profit, and their arrival signals that soon companies might be allowed to profit from providing good education in the UK.
“They are not interested for altruistic reasons. It’s an investment,” Freedman says. “Soon you’ll see organisations given money to run schools rather than them sponsoring academies.”
Professor Julian Le Grand, a former adviser to Tony Blair, is working on a new school funding system for a Policy Exchange research project. It is said to involve the question of whether publicly funded state schools should be able to make a profit. The thinktank is rapidly gaining a reputation for influencing David Cameron.
Freedman says profit-making schools are taboo in England, but there could be a series of simple incremental steps that would see a Swedish-style system introduced almost by stealth.
“We already have per capita funding system but the local authority gets 15%. Take that away and give all the money to the school and you’re almost there.”
Hultins was a government adviser and instrumental to the introduction of the independent or “free school” movement in Sweden. He went on to co-found Kunskapsskolan with funding from one of the biggest investment companies in Sweden, which also owns large stakes in the mobile phone giant Ericsson.
He says they are investing in the UK to prove their model in the English language and curriculum, which is marketable elsewhere in the world. “We have no opinion on whether academies should be profit-making. We work with the reality of the policy today. Overall we expect many countries to allow for more diversity and profit-making in the education systems across the world.”
However, the Swedish independent schools are increasingly coming with health warnings. An official government review of the independent system in Sweden in 2004 was equivocal. Some of the independent schools have improved results, others have not and some have failed.
FAQ: Swedish schools
How does the Swedish school system rank internationally?
Highly. It’s in the top 10 for reading in international rankings and has one of the most egalitarian education systems with pupils’ chances of succeeding in school being more equal in Sweden than elsewhere. But it still trails behind its Nordic neighbour, Finland, which is rated the best education system in the world.
How do Swedish schools compare with the English system?
Children start school at six or seven, compared with four or five in the UK. English school children sit externally marked tests throughout their schooling, whereas Swedish pupils are assessed by their own teachers. Languages are compulsory for all Swedish school children, but only for 11 to 14-year-olds in England. In Sweden there are very few fee-charging schools, though 10% are “free”, state funded but run independently. These schools are allowed to make a profit if they prove they are providing a good level of education.
Why do Swedish children do so well?
Educationalists talk about the whole system being less target-driven and more child-centred. Children start later and feel less pressured by external exams. High taxation means schools are well-funded.
What lessons are being learned here?
Academies, the government’s six-year-old system of privately run, state-funded schools were influenced by Swedish free schools. The Liberal Democrats and Tories have put forward policies incorporating elements of the free school model. Kunskapsskolan, one independent school provider, is planning 30 academies in England and a handful of independent schools. The Kunskapsskolan academies will not be allowed to make a profit and the schools’ backers say their motive is to prove their model of schooling in the English language and curriculum.
Why are profit-making schools taboo in Britain?
Politically the issue is too sensitive. Advocates argue it will incentivise improvements and drive up standards. But many people feel that children’s education is the responsibility of the state, and should not be subject to commercialised ventures which might be tempted to cut corners. In Sweden independent schools are accused of cutting costs on facilities, which means the state ends up paying for the facilities separately anyway.