A political debate has erupted in Sweden over the way so-called ‘free’ schools operate after one institution run by a conservative Islamic foundation was found to be separating boys and girls for bus travel.
Swedish investigative journalism show Kalla Fakta (Hard Facts) found that children at at the Al-Azhar free school in the Stockholm suburb of Vällingby were being divided by gender at the beginning and end of the school day by staff before boarding buses.
The school had previously attracted criticism for dividing children up for gym classes.
Speaking to journalists at a press conference in the Swedish parliament, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven called the practice ‘atrocious’.
”This is does not belong in Sweden. Here we take the bus together whether we’re a boy or a girl, woman or man. This shows how far we still have to go in tackling gender segregation,” said Löfven.
Sweden generally takes gender equality seriously, and state schools are co-educational.
The free school system that grew under Sweden’s previous conservative government gave the companies and organisations running the schools a larger degree of control over the way the schools were organised.
Several free schools have started by conservative faith groups, including evangelical Christian churches and the Plymouth brethren, a Christian sect.
There have been documented cases of schools attempting to steer the curriculum on moral grounds, including blocking access to information on sex education and relationships and an emphasis on biblical interpretations of history and evolution.
It is not the first time that an Islamic school has been accused of trying to make its students follow conservative values.
The Al Salham Islamic free school in Örebro, a town in central Sweden, has previously been the subject of criticism after instituting a ban on contemporary music.
It also attracted controversy when its principal told a Swedish TV show ‘there are no homosexual Muslims’.
Sweden’s Social-Democratic/Green government does not have a full majority, and must seek cooperation from liberal parties to legislate on reigning in the self-governing schools.
Swedish Green Party education minister Gustav Fridolin has previously announced plans to restrict religious influence in free schools irrespective of faith.
”It makes me angry to see this. School should be a battering ram to push for equality rather than a way of reinforcing old-fashioned gender norms.” said Fridolin in response to the revelations about the segretation by Al-Azhar.
The Swedish model of free schools was a key plank of Conservative education policy under David Cameron.
To date, the Scottish Government has resisted calls for schools to be allowed to operate under a similar model.
Catholic schools in Scotland are presently permitted to vet staff recruitment according to religious affiliation and to integrate religious observance as a mandatory part of the school day.
Prominent Catholic commentator Kevin McKenna recenty said that ‘a campaign of harassment and intimidation is being waged to silence and alienate the country’s biggest minority’ in reference to criticism of Catholic education in Scotland.