Sweden’s pioneering for-profit ‘free schools’ under fire

Thirty years after their introduction, Sweden is a world leader of "free schools" owned by for-profit companies that pay dividends to shareholders -- a business model hotly debated ahead of the general election on September 11, 2022.

Sweden's pioneering for-profit 'free schools' under fire
Students attend a class at the Drottning Blanka secondary school in Järfälla, Sweden. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

In a Stockholm suburb, the Drottning Blanka secondary school premises look more like an office space than your traditional red-brick institution with a schoolyard and gymnasium.

Like many of Sweden’s “free schools”, it doesn’t have its own building — instead, it rents a commercial space alongside other companies.

Here, performance is not just about how students do in exams.

“Free schools” owned by for-profit companies that pay dividends to shareholders are a business model hotly debated ahead of Sunday’s general election.

Drottning Blanka’s senior high school in Järfälla, Sweden. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

Almost a fifth of pupils in Sweden attend one of the country’s 3,900 primary and secondary “free schools”, first introduced in the country in the early 1990s.

Known elsewhere as voucher or charter schools, Sweden is a world leader in this type of schooling, which offers broader educational choice but still follows the Swedish curriculum.

Around three-quarters of “free schools” are owned by public limited companies and are for-profit, according to official statistics.

The remainder are either non-profit or run by foundations.

But in egalitarian Sweden, in order to ensure the “free schools” are accessible to all, they are 100 percent state-funded.

‘Party’s over’

Critics of the model decry the fact that taxpayer money intended for children’s education ends up in shareholders’ pockets.

“The party is over. The money from your taxes must go to schools, not to company profits,” thundered Social Democratic Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson in July.

She wants to put an end to “free schools” paying out dividends. Schools that do make profits should instead reinvest them in their establishments, she argues.

“The quest for profits in Swedish schools must end,” insisted Andersson, who is seeking the Social Democrats’ third straight mandate in the election.

Conceived as a right-wing reform in 1992 and supported by successive left and right governments since then, proponents of the system initially thought it would pave the way for a few schools run by individuals passionate about education.

Little did they know that it would give rise to a bevy of schools owned by private companies often listed on the stock exchange, such as AcadeMedia, Sweden’s biggest education group with annual revenues of over $1 billion (one billion euros).

The group recently announced — in the midst of the election campaign — that it would dish out 185 million kronor ($17 million) in dividends to shareholders, or about a quarter of its profits.

School Principal Pia Johansson poses for a photo at the Drottning Blankas secondary school in Jarfalla, Sweden. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

In the capital’s Järfälla suburb, principal Pia Johansson says her school’s parent company, Drottning Blanka AB which runs 27 establishments and belongs to AcadeMedia, has a profit margin target of six percent.

She’s opposed to a ban on dividends. “It’s like any other business: people invest money, large sums of money,” she says.

“It’s natural that investors want some of the profit,” she adds, acknowledging however that there “maybe should be some kind of limit”.

That’s the approach preferred by the leader of the opposition conservative Moderates, Ulf Kristersson, who is challenging Andersson for the role of prime minister on Sunday.

“I’ve always said that dividends at well-run school groups are not a problem for Sweden. I’m much more concerned about the bad state-run schools,” he said after AcadeMedia announced its dividend payout.

His party has called for dividend caps on schools that “perform poorly” academically.

Dividend ban?

While a large majority of Swedes are in favour of “free schools”, most are opposed to them turning huge profits, opinion polls show.

Prime Minister Andersson in July appointed a special rapporteur to draw up proposals on how to move forward with a ban on dividends from schools.

The issue is tricky, as existing shareholders would likely demand costly compensation.

Detractors of the for-profit system say the model attracts irresponsible actors, and encourages owners to cut costs to maximise profits and inflate students’ grades in order to bring in “clients”.

Marcus Strömberg, AcadeMedia’s chief executive, insists, however, that profits are necessary.

A company’s budget surplus enables it to invest in and develop its educational operations and provide “security for students”, as well as “create more school places”, he told AFP.

By AFP’s Karine Pfenniger

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RANKING: Which country in the Nordics has the best English speakers?

The Danes have toppled Norwegians from the title of best English speakers in the Nordics, according to the the latest annual proficiency ranking from Education First (EF). But English-speaking ability has slipped across the region.

RANKING: Which country in the Nordics has the best English speakers?

According to the annual EF English Proficiency Index, Denmark now ranks fourth in the world on the English-speaking skills of its citizens, knocking Norway — which ranked fourth last year– into fifth place.

Sweden kept its position in sixth place, while Finland remained far behind in 14th.

The Scandinavian countries remain among the best English speakers in the world, ranking just behind the three leading countries, The Netherlands, Singapore and Austria. 

But they’ve been slipping steadily since their English proficiency peaked in 2016, with a particularly marked decline over the last couple of years, something the EF report suggested might be connected to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The drop in English speaking skills of young people in several countries, it found, “aligns neatly with the interruption of education systems during the pandemic”. 

“It is not yet clear if learning loss due to Covid will self-correct over time,” it added. “But in subsequent cohorts we would expect to see a rebound.” 

Sweden topped the index in 2013, with its score peaking at 645 in 2015, and falling from 623 to 609 over the past two years. Denmark’s score, meanwhile, peaked in 2016 at 645, falling from to 636 to 615 over the past two years. Norway’s score peaked at 640 in 2016, and has fallen from 632 to 614 over the past two years. 

Here’s Denmark’s performance: 

Graphic: EF

Here’s Norway’s: 

And here’s Sweden’s: 

The drop in performance of the Scandinavian countries was particularly marked among 18 to 20-year-olds, with this age group seeing their score falling by 87 points in Sweden, 72 points in Norway and 59 points in Denmark. 

Here’s the age trend for Denmark:  

Here’s the age trend for Norway: 

Graphic: EF

And here’s the age trend for Sweden: 

Graphic: EF

When it came to the big cities, the Nordics performed strongly with people from Copenhagen ranked the third best English speakers of any city in the world after Amsterdam and Vienna, with Stockholm and Oslo coming close behind.    

The index is based on the the results of the 2.2m language learners from across the world who took the EF Standard English Test last year. 

EF, founded by the Swedish billionaire Bertil Hult, is one of the world’s biggest language learning organisations and provides language training, educational travel, academic degree programs, and cultural exchange.