You're not going far enough, Swedish expert tells Cameron

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The Independent Online

The Conservatives will be warned today they would be wrong to refuse to allow Swedish-style independent "free" schools to make a profit out of private education. That would be "a terrific mistake", said Mikael Sandstrom, the Swedish Prime Minister's senior adviser. "The profit motive is good for making schools less selective."

He said that if companies running the schools made a profit, it would be easier for them to expand and provide more places. Otherwise, they would be oversubscribed and become more selective. "If a school cannot make a profit, it is not a smart system," he added. "It allows them to expand and they can take more pupils in, definitely from moredisadvantaged parents."

Until now, the Conservatives have been against the idea that a private company should be able to make a profit from providing education financed by the state.

Mr Sandstrom, head of the Prime Minister's policy co-ordinating unit, added that it was also important to impose a strict fee cap on the "free" schools, refusing them permission to make any charges on top of the voucher paid for by the state. Otherwise, their doors would be closed to children from poorer families.

The Conservatives have pledged support for this idea. Since the Swedish government introduced independent "free" schools 15 years ago, about 900 have been set up, 10 per cent of the state-financed education sector. But research by Sweden's National Agency for Education warns that social segregation could increase if the system was copied in the UK. And a report indicated research had shown that better-educated parents were more likely to opt to send their children to independent "free" schools. Pupils in the independent "free" schools were more likely to get higher grades than those taught in schools which are run by municipal authorities.

But Bertil Ostberg, the Swedish Secretary of State for Education, warned that the quality of education in his country was "still bad" with some schools performing poorly.

The Swedish government is planning a system of national curriculum testing for 10, 13- and 16-year-olds concentrating on Swedish, maths and English for younger pupils, and including science subjects for the older ones, plus a tougher inspection system along the lines of Ofsted, the UK education standards watchdog, to expose incompetent teaching.

"We're not satisfied with our school system," said Mr Ostberg. "We should be top-class, competing with the 10 best countries and we're not there now. Introduction of independent schools has not solved this system."