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‘Free choice of school and charter schools can decrease segregation’

Ahead of the Swedish election, reforming the country's schools and improving educational equality is one of the top issues for voters.

'Free choice of school and charter schools can decrease segregation'
IES Enskede, a charter school in the southern suburbs of Stockholm. Photo: IES

Click here to read the first two parts of The Local's in-depth report on the Swedish school system.

One of the big questions is around the role of Sweden's charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately managed, compared to the majority of schools which are run by local municipalities.

From 1992, charter schools were made eligible for state funding making them free to attend, the aim of which was to raise quality in Sweden's schools by creating competition.

Critics of the system have argued that they have contributed to increased segregation and should be reformed, while supporters say that competition does raise quality, and that privately run schools can help compensate for segregation that already exists in Swedish society.

“Free choice of school and charter schools play a part in decreasing the current segregation which is mainly caused by residential segregation,” Lars Granath from the Liberal Party told The Local.

“If you scrap free choice of school and ban charter schools, forcing students to go to the nearest school, as was the case before 1992 [when comprehensive reforms were made to the Swedish school system], the attractive schools in, for example, central Stockholm, would be reserved for a few; the relatively affluent people who live there.”

FOR MEMBERS: How to choose the right school for your children in Sweden

This stance is shared by a spokesperson for Sweden's largest provider of charter schools, Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES). IES' schools are located in 22 of Sweden's municipalities, from Umeå in the north to Lund in the south and including areas of different socioeconomic status, and in total are attended by children from more than 150 municipalities.

The schools operate on a first-come, first-served application system, which it argues gives everyone an opportunity of getting a place, regardless of where they live.

“Clearly our schools contribute to residential integration,” argued company spokesperson Jonathan Howell.

“Our students come from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds, and their home municipalities might have set very different funding levels [for the municipally-run schools], but when they walk through the doors of an IES school they are all treated in the same way, and all encouraged to meet their full potential.”

The school is bilingual, with over half of its lessons in Swedish, most of the remainder in English, and many non-Swedish students receiving support in their mother tongue. In total, 38 percent of students at IES come from a non-Swedish background, compared to a nationwide average of 24 percent, which Howell says is evidence that the schools foster integration.

“We have also been trialling the ability to give priority to a proportion of students who are newly-arrived in Sweden, following a recent change in the education law to allow for this,” Howell said.

SWEDEN IN FOCUS: What's behind rising inequality in Swedish schools?

He also outlined specific measures the schools have taken to improve educational equality. “We hold academic surgeries, where students can be given extra support to understand a concept they have been struggling with, so that students are all able to get a high quality of help and encouragement, whatever their parents' level of education is,” he explained. 

The Friskolornas riksförbund, an organization representing Sweden's charter schools, has called for more of the schools to be established, pointing out that in several cases municipalities have vetoed the setting up of charter schools in vulnerable areas. 

Students graduating from the International English School. Photo: IES

Current Education Minister Gustav Fridolin of the Green Party has called for reforms to charter schools and increased regulation, arguing that first-come, first-served queue systems have created oversubscribed schools where children need to have their names put down from the day of their birth. This leads to exclusion and large differences between the schools, he argues.

And the Green Party's coalition partner, the centre-left Social Democrats, has proposed tougher measures on charter schools, including banning all religious charter schools, stopping “the over-establishment of schools”, and introducing measures to stop a “race for profits” among charter schools.

Several of the parties in opposition disagree. Rather than reforms to the charter school system, the Liberals – who are in favour of schools continuing to be run for profit and to remove municipalities' right to veto the establishment of charter schools – want to reform municipally run schools, with control reverting to the state.

The shift from state control to municipal control of schools was another change introduced in the 1990s; the high number of reforms brought in around the same time makes it tough to draw any links between specific policies and the developments in results and segregation.

“To create equal schools, the municipally-run schools should become state-run. Charter schools are already under state control, even if they're privately run, and we want muncipal schools to do that too. Then, all students would be guaranteed an equal education, wherever they lived,” Granath from the Liberals told The Local.

Another policy that often comes under fire is the free choice of school; currently, parents can choose to send their child to any school they want, rather than a lottery system or catchment areas. Schools then receive funding in correlation with the number of students enrolled. However, studies have shown that families of higher socioeconomic status are more likely to take advantage of the option to choose schools.

The Liberals want to preserve the fria skolvalet, with Granath saying: “It gives all students and parents a chance to choose which school suits them best, regardless of economic and social conditions.” In fact, he proposed making the choice compulsory – currently parents do not have to make an active choice, in which case their child is sent to the nearest school with vacancies. 

“Instead of limiting the choice of schools, everyone, including new arrivals, should make an active choice of school. Parents and students should get better conditions for making a well-informed choice through improved information, clearer comparisons along with openness and transparency through easily accessible admissions portals – preferably in more languages,” Granath explained.

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For members


What schools do foreigners in Sweden send their children to and are they happy?

Most foreign parents in Sweden told The Local's survey they take advantage of the country's school choice system and send their children to international schools, or to private or non-profit free schools. Here's what they think of the quality of teaching.

What schools do foreigners in Sweden send their children to and are they happy?

Our survey was not scientific, but out of the 157 people who responded before we closed it, 65 (41 percent) sent their child or children to a standard municipally-run school which did not offer an international programme as part of their teaching. More than a third (34 percent) sent their child to an international school offering the International Baccalaureate diploma (which could be municipal, private, or non-profit).

Almost a quarter (39 respondents, 24.4 percent) sent their children to a profit-making free school. And almost a fifth (29 respondents, 18 percent) sent their child or children to a free school run by a non-profit organisation.

The survey was carried out as part of The Local’s investigation into schools in Sweden. We’ve previously published interviews with foreign teachers at the IES (Internationella Engelska Skolan, International English School) free school chain herehere, and here, and are now looking into other schools as well.

Since the “free school reform” in 1992, private and non-profit companies have been able to run schools in Sweden, with the state paying them for each pupil educated. 

The system has come under growing criticism over the past ten years.

This has partly been due to a decline in the performance of Swedish pupils compared to those of other countries in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The system of school choice has been blamed for increasing segregation. 

In the run-up to September’s election, schools are likely to be one of the big issues. 

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson looks set to campaign on a pledge to ban free schools – dismissed as marknadsskolan, “schools driven by market forces” – from siphoning off profits. 

“The school system we have in Sweden today, which is unique in the world and no other country has chosen to imitate, is a system which essentially drives increased segregation,” she said in an interview in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper at the end of last month. 

“Researchers are pretty much unanimous about that. Pupils with the worst prospects are collected together in one school and those with better prospects in another.”  

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of the centre-left Social Democrat party. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Swedish schools too slow 

The most common complaint from parents who answered the survey was that the pace of education at municipality-run schools was too slow, and the level of academic demands placed on their children too low. 

“[It’s] very slow-paced,” complained a US mother living in Uppsala. [The] education is several years behind grade level in the US.” 

Mangla Sekhri, an Indian mother and IT director based in Stockholm, said she had pulled her children out of the local municipality school after a year and moved them to a school run by the IES chain.

“[I] just couldn’t continue due to [the] slow pace there. It was very slow, but now at IES things are much better-paced.” 


“The only thing which bothers me is lower expectations on the kids, compared to Poland where we come from,” said a Polish respondent. 

“She’s ahead of the other children because she’d already finished two years of school in Guernsey. They don’t give her learning materials of a high enough level without us asking them to,” complained a father from the British Isles. 

Better integration at municipal schools 

For those who had chosen to send their children to a standard, municipality-run school, the big attraction was better integration, both in Sweden and in their local neighbourhood. 

“Their peers and friends at the school are generally their neighbours as well, [so it’s] easy to hang out with school friends,” said an American living on Sweden’s northwest coast, whose four children all went through the local municipal school. 

“My now eight-year-old daughter learned Swedish within months. One year on, she’s completely fluent. She has also made many Swedish friends and has playdates several days a week,” said a British father living in Gävle. 

“If you are an immigrant and planning to settle down in Sweden then municipal schools are good options for your child to learn Swedish quickly,” agreed a dad from Bangladesh, living in Malmö. 

More flexibility and better discipline at private schools

Many of those who had chosen to send their children to a privately-run free school seemed to prize the additional flexibility and better discipline they offered. 

“My child was already three years ahead academically and was very bored in lessons (had already learned everything in maths and science in the UK), so IES let him attend higher years group classes in these subjects,” reported an English respondent living in the middle of Sweden. 

“Free schools have stricter discipline and they focus more on studies,” said a mother from Sri Lanka whose child went to a school run by the Kunskapskolan chain. 

“I like the discipline and all the support that teachers give to the students,” said a mother whose child goes to a school run by IES. 

A parent whose child went to a school run by the AcadeMedia chain, said they were drawn by the additional subjects, such as music and theatre, on offer. 

Better possibilities to study internationally and move schools if posted elsewhere

Those who chose to send their children to schools running the International Baccalaureate programme did so either because they liked the programme’s more demanding curriculum or because they were only on a short or medium-term posting to Sweden and wanted to make it easier for their children to shift their education to a new country. 

One parent, whose child went to the British International School of Stockholm, cited the “ease of transferring to a new school when moving to a new country”, and “exposure to different cultures and points of view” as advantages. 

“I love the IB. It’s one of the best but also most challenging educational systems in the world and this is widely recognised,” said one parent, whose child goes to the international school run by the Bladins Foundation in Malmö.

“Here in Malmö, the big risk is that there are no options for the final years outside the one school. If your child doesn’t achieve the academic standard required, then you are screwed.” 

Who was happiest with their choice of school? 

There was little variation in parent satisfaction between those who sent their children to a municipal, private or international school. 

The parents who sent their children to standard municipal schools rated their school on average at 7.7 out of 10. Those who sent their children to a privately run free school rated their school at 8.2, while those who sent their children to a school run by a non-profit organisation rated their children’s school the highest at 8.6. 

Those whose children went to a school running the International Baccalaureate programme rated the school on average at 8.3. 

There was slightly more variation between types of schools when parents broke down their ratings, with standard municipal schools falling further behind on the level of discipline parents perceived at their children’s schools, and also on the quality of extra-curricular activities.

  Overall Teaching Happiness of child Discipline Extra-curricular
Standard municipal 7.7 7.4 8.3 7.1 6.6
For-profit 8.2 8 8.5 7.9 7.4
Non-profit 8.6 8.6 9 8.5 7.1
International school 8.25 8.2 8.8 8 7.3

Which individual schools/chains came out tops? 

The schools which won the highest approval rating tended to be the international schools run by non-profit foundations, such as British International School Stockholm, Bladins International in Malmö, The English School Gothenburg, Sigtunaskolan, and Stockholm International School (although note that there were only one to three respondents for each of these schools). 

When it came to the for-profit free school chains, there was more variation, with some parents loving their children’s schools and others disappointed. 

Four parents sending their children to the IES chain gave the school ten out of ten, but two IES parents gave their school four or five out of ten. It was a similar story with the Kunskapskolan chain, where one parent gave an eight, another a four.

“The best thing about my child’s school is how respectful the children are towards each other,” send one parent who sent her child to an IES school. “There is a culture of the children being kind and supportive of each other. The teachers have all been amazing, and it’s been really interesting for my child to meet teachers from a huge variety of different countries.” 

Several IES parents also praised how well organised their child’s school was, with high standards of cleanliness and discipline. 

“I chose IES because the school inculcates the right values that I would like my children to have – discipline, respect for teachers, diligence in studying, academic excellence,” one wrote. 

“The staff seem genuinely interested in our concerns. The kids enjoy being there and enjoy learning,” wrote another. 

On the negative side, one noted that “teachers are not paid as well as [at] public schools”, another that “teachers are very often changing”, and another that “no proper curriculum [had been] followed”. 

In general, the most dissatisfied parents had children at municipal schools, perhaps because they were less likely to have actively chosen them. Ten respondents gave their municipality-run school a four or five overall. 

“[There is] nothing to do in their free time and an extremely low level of teaching,” complained one parent, while another complained of “incompetent staff with a lack of social-emotional intelligence”, and another of “extremely large classes”. 

“I’m not entirely sure of the quality of the education,” wrote one Irish parent. “At least one of the teachers seems to think the Republic of Ireland is part of the UK.” 

A particular complaint about municipal schools was the way teachers seemed unwilling to use imaginative and engaging teaching methods. “Some teachers are not able to engage the class with interesting teaching methods,” complained an Australian father. 

Given the level of variation in answers to The Local’s questionnaire between both the best and worst municipality-run schools and the best and worst schools run by the free school chains, it is clearly important to talk to local parents about which school in your area of Sweden seems best.