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Page last updated at 12:13 GMT, Thursday, 26 June 2008 13:13 UK

Free schools

Paola Buonadonna
Paola Buonadonna
The Politics Show

Sweden's 900 'free schools', are established by parents, charities and companies. They are independent but follow the national curriculum.

Students relax in the cafeteria
Students relax in the cafeteria between classes

The place felt familiar yet completely exotic at the same time with its colourful furniture, light wood and glass.

Bright eyed, confident teen-agers with crazy haircuts strode about the place, or stopped in clusters for chats or sat pensively poring over books.

The cafeteria was doing brisk business in healthy meals - not that money was being exchanged.

The school was like no other I had ever been to, but exactly how I had always imagined a school should look and feel: open, colourful, light, more of a leisure facility than an institution.

I was visiting one of Sweden's 900 'free schools', so called because they're set up by parents, charities or even companies and run independently albeit following the national curriculum.

What's different about them is that they're entirely funded by the taxpayer.

The idea has inspired the Conservatives in this country, who say they want to bring free schools to Britain.

Education being a devolved matter, a Tory win at the enxt general election would mean they could only apply it to England in practice.

Computer session at the Uppsala school
An informal computer session at the Uppsala school

The newly appointed young Headmaster, Teddy Södeberg, explained that 'free school' have a chance to experiment with new teaching methods and more personalised (rather than target-based) learning.

Pupils take classes based on their ability in a subject and not their age.

They also have weekly one-to-one tuition sessions.

But the very architecture of the place contributes to shape the ways children are taught and dealt with. Sodeberg's school (in Uppsala, north of Stockholm) was built for 500 pupils but only currently caters to 320.

There is a lot of space and very few brick walls. "Glass walls and the use of open space means teachers can keep an eye on behaviour and be more prompt to spot problems such as bullying," he told me.

When the system was introduced in 1992 even its proponents expected it would remain a marginal oddity in educational provision.

Today one in eight schools has been set up this way, with thousands of new applications granted each year.

The applicants are often groups of parents spurred into action by the planned closure of a well-loved local school.

It is a voucher system but the voucher is an invisible one. Each pupil the school attracts brings with him or her a fixed amount of funding from the state - the same that would have been spent on them if they had stayed in a local authority school.

Free schools cannot select pupils according to ability or any other measure and are obliged to take 'difficult' or disabled children too, in exchange for a slightly higher premium.

Kunskapsskolan
The Kunskapsskolan company runs 30 'free schools' across Sweden

It is quite a revolutionary concept - free education delivered through the market - but with a Scandinavian aura of efficiency and equality which appeals to a Tory party worried about being seen as a threat to public services.

But while the Tories are adamant they don't intend to allow tax-payer funded schools to be run for profit, that's exactly what happens in Sweden.

Roughly half of the 'free schools', including the one I visited, are run by private companies to make money.

This isn't particularly controversial in Sweden and the system has survived successive governments of different political hues.

"This development that we have had, it wouldn't have happened without private companies that were interested in starting independent schools and also making a profit", the State secretary for Education Bertil Östberg told me.

Another issue is that of financial efficiency: to deliver real choice there has to be spare capacity in the system, the cost of which is borne, again by the taxpayer.

Swedish National Flag

Even the chief executive of Kunskapsskolan, a company which runs about 30 free schools for profit, admitted it could be seen as a disadvantage: "I would say that's one of the best arguments against the system", Per Ladin told me, "that for a short initial period it's going to provide too much of an overcapacity.

But if you don't allow for an overcapacity then you are back to the old Soviet system aren't you - then you have to have five year plans to make it perfect and that wasn't too successful."

Critics of the 'free school', warn that their success is deceptive and it hides other problems.

Social Democrat activist Christina Winroth, who has school-age children herself, argues that that free schools have proved 'socially divisive', inasmuch that it's normally the more aware better educated parents who will do the research to come up with the best school in their town.

Only the better off can afford to ferry their child to the other side of town if needs be.

"We've been taken in by this mantra of choice, but choice is not the point. As a parent what I want is for my local school round the corner to be good," she said.

The Tories will have to address all these criticisms as a general election approaches but Britain might have a close look at the Swedish system earlier than expected.

Kunskapsskolan has opened offices in London in preparation for taking over the running of two struggling academies from next year.

Meanwhile the Swedes are moving on to the next private sector based revolution as they turn their attention to care for the elderly.

A voucher scheme for elderly care services similar to those adopted for schools will be launched in 2009 and many bet it won't be long before this idea too will travel across the North sea to Britain.

The Politics Show is on BBC One at 12.00pm on Sunday 29 June.

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