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The Shame of Swedish Education: J’Accuse! (Part 1)

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The following article was written by Swedish high school teacher Filippa Mannherheim and translated by retired Swedish educator Sara Hjelm. It appeared in the Swedish publication Expressen. Sweden adopted a free-market system of schooling in the early 1990s, and the results have increased segregation without improving the quality of education or access to good schools. The free-market model, she writes, began with extravagant promises but has turned into a bonanza for entrepreneurs and profiteers.

Published 17 Nov 2020 at 06.15, updated 18 Nov at 10.05

Teacher and school debater Filippa Mannerheim.Photo: Press

Teacher and school debater Filippa Mannerheim today publishes an open letter on Expressen’s culture page to Sweden’s Riksdag politicians. “It is time to merge across party lines and stop the expansion of limited companies,” she writes.

This is a cultural article, where writers can express personal opinions and make assessments of works of art.


Parliamentary politicians!

I am a Swedish citizen. I am a teacher. I’m a parent. And I am deeply concerned about the future of Swedish schools. 

The Swedish school has been subjected to a world-unique experiment. In the rest of the world, it is unreasonable for limited companies to make unregulated profits on tax money. Despite this, we in Sweden donate hundreds of millions of kronor to shareholders in company groups year after year – money that was intended for our children’s education.

With the deregulation of the 1990s, the ambition was to create thriving, independent schools, foundations, parent cooperatives and small limited company schools with educational alternatives. Today, this vision has turned into an uncontrollable market where venture capital companies are expanding and devouring tax money at breakneck speed. 

The business model is simple: you buy smaller independent schools and incorporate them into the growing groups and then make a profit by targeting marketing to easy-to-teach, independent students, through special dress codes, requirements for high tempo and great drive or through English as a study language. With a sold-out, simpler student base, the corporation schools can reduce salaries, teacher density, resource staff and – to attract even more lucrative student customers – sprinkle with joy-ratings to show the school’s “high results”.

When the profitable students have been absorbed by the independent school, the municipal school is left with a more difficult student base and with the overall responsibility for all the municipality’s students. And when the municipal school’s student allowance must be increased due to the task becoming more demanding, the independent schools ‘student allowance is also increased and the groups’ profits can increase even more. A bomb-proof business model for venture capital companies but a devastating tax waste for the Swedish citizens. 

You, politicians, have made our common school a wet dream for venture capital companies.

Because while the school giant Academedia, now listed on the stock exchange, makes a profit of SEK 556 million before tax, the size of the children’s groups in the preschool increases and greatly exceeds the National Agency for Education’s benchmarks. While the International English School (IES) presents a profit of 254 million, many children are in classrooms without teaching materials and are taught by foreign teachers without Swedish qualification or by qualified teachers who earn SEK 3,000 less a month than their municipal colleagues. While schools and colleges are sounding the alarm about declining knowledge results, joy grades are rising, as grades have become a competitive tool on the market. While the independent school giants receive a rent discount for establishing themselves in the municipalities, children with diagnoses or a mother tongue other than Swedish are rejected, as they are more expensive to teach.

Before the National Agency for Education made all statistics about individual schools secret – because it became a “trade secret” – all this information was available to us. Today it does not do that anymore, which threatens our democracy. 

I accuse you of that.

Swedish schools bleed at the same time as resources are available. But the tax money that was intended to go to student support, small groups, more teachers, more resource staff, teaching materials and smaller classes ends up in tax havens instead. 

You, politicians, have made our common school a wet dream for venture capital companies. It’s shameful. It’s sad. It is unworthy of a knowledge nation. 

After Chile abolished profit-driven independent schools four years ago, we are left alone in the world with our school system. Denmark, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, England all have independent schools but profits are prohibited or strictly regulated. If the rest of the world can have well-functioning independent schools for parents to choose from, without the owners being allowed to pick out millions in profits – why can’t we? 

The company magnates have the money. Nine politicians have the power. I have, apart from my furious despair over the state of affairs, only my pen and my conviction that the truth about Sweden’s school system must emerge.

I’m accusing …! was written by Émile Zola and published January 13, 1898. Zola turned in the letter to the President of France and took a stand for the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus who had been convicted of high treason.

Parliamentary politicians. This letter has become long and it is time to summarize: 

I accuse you, the Social Democrats! Your party name is a pathetic remnant from the time when you defended an equal school – for all children from all walks of life. Today you have voluntarily put your gag on one of Sweden’s most important issues – the marketing school. It is not democracy but its exact opposite: it is political pity.

I accuse you, the Moderates! You are talking about more controls, even though it obviously does not help against the corruption-like elements that the market school has produced, where joy grades, instead of education, have become a competitive tool in the fight for the most easily taught students. You have with your nonchalance betrayed our nation and its youngest citizens.

I accuse you, Liberals. You call yourself a “school party” and claim that teachers should be authorities in the classrooms. At the same time, you have turned children and parents into school customers and “grade shoppers” and teachers into servile sellers of grades, with the task of keeping customers happy for their own school’s survival. The system is morally corrupt and you are partly responsible. 

I accuse you, the Christian Democrats. Your reluctance to see how the interest in profit hits the school is depressing. You earn money when you should serve our children. To you, I have only one thing to say: Drive the traders out of the temple!

I accuse you, the Green Party. In 2013, your congress voted no to welfare gains. After that, your school policy has consisted of hand hearts on Youtube, despite the fact that you held the post of Minister of Education. Your contribution on the school grounds has been an unfunded “Read-write-count-guarantee” and a struggle for more sex and cohabitation education, while the school falls. 

I accuse you, the Sweden Democrats. You talk about assimilation, community and security. Yet you support a school system that increases segregation and allows jihadist schools run by people with links to Islamism and violent extremism and schools with religious indoctrination of children. And after a special lunch at Riche, you turned to the issue of banning profiteering and sat yourself on lap in the independent school lobby. 

I accuse you, the Left Party. You have been passive and have not even indicated that you would like to overthrow the government on this issue. The school groups’ profit-taking and expansion is a matter of destiny for our country and no matter how outrageous alone you are here in Sweden, you have the rest of the world on your side. Overthrow the government! This issue is not negotiable.

I accuse you, Center Party! You put venture capital companies’ right to millions in profits ahead of future generations and call Sweden’s principle of openness – the foundation of our democracy – a “hot pursuit of free enterprise”. You let your friends in business management legally steal our taxes – millions that were meant for education. You pose shamelessly with the groups great in photo, without being ashamed. You have let Sweden down. 

Knowledge, education and upbringing should be at the center of this socially important activity – not money.

My questions to you politicians are the following: What will happen to Sweden when more and more children do not get the education they need? When foreign venture capital companies gain more and more influence over the school and we citizens lose both transparency and the principle of openness? When tax money, through independent school groups, ends up in the pockets of fundamentalists and shareholders in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Malta? What opportunities will we have to govern the school in a democratic way when the power of foreign owners over our education system increases through the expansion of the school groups? 

One last reflection. Whatever it may now be worth to you: Schools are not just buildings with children and teachers inside. Schools are not just childcare while parents work. The school is a common community building, where we adults prepare future generations for the future. Knowledge, education and upbringing should be at the center of this socially important activity – not money. 

If we demolish this common building, which you, politicians, are well on your way to doing, society will also fall to pieces, slowly but surely. Your society, just like mine. Your children’s society, just like my children’s society. 

Parliamentary politicians. The time has come. It is time to merge across party lines and stop the expansion of venture companies and take back the tax millions and education to the Swedish people.

While we still can. 

By Filippa Mannerheim

Filippa Mannerheim is a high school teacher of Swedish and history, and a school debater.

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