In just 14 years the share of Swedish children educated privately has risen from a fraction of a percent to more than 10%.
At the time, it was assumed that most “free” schools would be foreign-language (English, Finnish or Estonian) or religious, or perhaps run by groups of parents in rural areas clubbing together to keep a local school alive. What no one predicted was the emergence of chains of schools. Yet that is where much of the growth in independent education has come from. Sweden's Independent Schools Association has ten members that run more than six schools, and five that run ten or more.
The biggest, Kunskapsskolan (“Knowledge Schools”) opened its first six schools in 2000. Four more opened last autumn, bringing the total to 30. It now has 700 employees and teaches nearly 10,000 pupils, with an operating profit of SKr62m last year on a turnover of SKr655m.
Like IKEA, a giant Swedish furniture-maker, Kunskapsskolan gets its customers to do much of the work themselves. The vital tool, though, is not an Allen key but the Kunskapsporten (“Knowledge Portal”), a website containing the entire syllabus. Youngsters spend 15 minutes each week with a tutor, reviewing the past week's progress and agreeing on goals and a timetable for the next one. This will include classes and lectures, but also a great deal of independent or small-group study.
The Kunskapsporten allows each student to work at his own level, and spend less or more time on each subject, depending on his strengths and weakness. Each subject is divided into 35 steps. Students who reach step 25 graduate with a pass; those who make it to step 30 or 35 gain, respectively, a merit or distinction.
Again like IKEA, no money is wasted on fancy surroundings. Kunskapsskolan Enskede, a school for 11- to 16-year-olds in a suburb of Stockholm, is a former office block into which classrooms, open-study spaces and two small lecture-theatres have been squeezed (pictured). It is pleasant, but basic and rather bare. It rents fields nearby for football and basketball, and, like other schools in the chain, sends pupils away to one of two specially built facilities for a week each term for home economics, woodwork and art, rather than providing costly, little-used facilities in the school.