Northern Lights: researchED Scandinavia lands in Sweden

20th March 2016 at 12:50

Tom Bennett writes from the land of long boats, snow and Lisbeth Salander about the latest international researchEd conference


Centuries ago, Vikings rattled coastal Britain with battle-axes and hammers; it’s only fair that we get to do the same, only this time with lanyards. The researchED longship beached in Gothenburg this weekend for our latest invasion by invitation. It nearly didn’t/couldn’t happen, because I’ve been so busy this year with other gigs and a behaviour role that suddenly had gas put in its tank. But Sara Hjelm, who is a divine avatar of ambition, patience and dedication, persuaded me that it could happen - it was her moxie and labour that made the day possible. I should never have doubted her, although I suspect I doubted my capacity more than hers. ResearchED only works because we have the fortune to partner up with so much talent and energy; every project is a marriage for love, and the conference is a child that shares the DNA of both parents. This one had a long blonde beard, pigtails, and spoke with a Scottish accent. Kids!

It was a beautiful blend of the usual researchED ingredients: volunteers, funding-by-the-seat-of-our-pants, donated time, collaboration and altruism. Speakers consisted of academics, teachers, leaders, policy makers, researchers, this time deliberately aimed at the Scandinavian continuum. The talent was predominately local, a Nordic Olympiad of epic heroes like Marion Stenneke, Per Kornhall, Jesper Boeson, Tine Proitz and so on. But we snuck a few Anglos in our Trojan Monkey, like Philippa Cordingley, Lucy Crehan and David Didau, and hoped no one would notice. Legends of Swedish hospitality were confirmed by the fact that they allowed the whole day to be held in English; I look forward to the day when we can hold a Swedish conference in Whitechapel.

Normally my day at each researchED sees me lashed to the mast of necessity, running around with a toilet plunger, a bag of programmes and a smartphone; for events abroad I allow myself the selfish indulgence of actually seeing a few sessions, otherwise when else will I see them? Sara had organised the students and staff volunteers at the Burgardens utbildningscentrum so thoroughly that the biggest problem I had to deal with was filling a session gap when a speaker couldn’t make it; Kevin Bartle, super-head, who had come as a member of the audience, probably regretted it later when he found himself preparing an emergency session with one hour’s notice. He was just one of the many Super Troopers who blinded me that day. 

Sweden has an interesting system: the system is practically 100 per cent state schooling, with a voucher twist. This policy has meant that while private education (as the UK knows it) is almost non existent, free-school chains have sprung up, eg IES, and, more controversially, these chains are allowed to make profit. It’s a system that divides many in Swedish education, and I heard a couple of excellent speakers like Per Kornhall speak powerfully on the issue. Sweden’s recent fall down the PISA High Score Table was mentioned a lot, and there is clearly a lot of concern about this.


Internationalism was a common theme, and I chaired an excellent panel with Harry Fletcher Wood, Pedro Bruyckere and Lucy Crehan on the validity of international comparisons, tourism and PISA. All were excellent. Some of my takeaways from that session:

  • PISA and similar have utility, but the data sets are often misinterpreted for political ambitions. 
  • Some claim that the OECD promotes a neoliberal Hydra-like conspiracy to transform the world’s education into an international and competitive market place; but actually the conclusions that PISA more than often draws are that collaboration between schools (rather than competition), trust, low stakes accountability and teacher autonomy are the features of the best performing school systems. Of course there are many challenges we could make to the validity of the data that informs these conclusions, but it’s an odd tension between reputation and reality.
  • Sweden and Finland’s great successes in the league table, which have now wobbled and tottered, were probably not the result of near-recent structural innovations, given that they had already been reliably and stably successful for years prior to their introduction. 
  • This fascinates me: edu-tourism is a dangerous and seductive game. Pedro described how everyone looked at the new Polish literacy as a miracle, but everyone had ignored the fact that when testing had been introduced to Poland that discerned this, it had been done into a system that had previously had almost no testing. So the baseline improved massively over a few years as increased test familiarity bore the low fruit of success. The Poles’ score went from poor to average, fast, and plateaued. Maybe simple barometers of success need a little more contextual scrutiny before we all start booking package flights to Krakow. 

The laconic Jesper Boeson spoke about teachers with PhDs, explaining why Sweden had provoked so many; some of the reasons were quite recent, and sprung from structural reforms to teacher training. In the past, as HE rapidly expanded, all the teachers with PhDs had been sucked into that system never to return; it took decades of incentives and change to build it back up. I’d love to see clearer pathways from teaching into academia and back again, as one strand of professional development that doesn’t necessitate a mono planar rise from classroom to senior staff, so I hoovered this up. And when they invent a time turner, or add five hours to the 24 hour day cycle, I’ll do a PhD. 

Per Kornhall, I mentioned, glowered and raged about the damage ascribed to vouchers; I swear if a voucher had walked in he would have strangled it on the spot. He was cutting about the current Scandinavian model, and another speaker mentioned that ‘even in right wing Norway we wouldn’t emulate the Swedish model’ Meanwhile I was still trying to process just what right wing meant in liberal and lovely Norway. Per was fascinating and compelling. 

Lastly I saw Joakim Landahl, who outlined the history of international comparisons, based on work he is currently doing. This was one of my highlights; the context fascinates me. It’s desperately important for us to recognise the impact that PISA now has on national systems, for good or ill (and I’ll suggest that an unelected organisation which routinely pronounces what success and failure even means, needs more checks and balances than it currently endures. Until then, maybe we just have to do it for ourselves), and to understand: just how did this structure emerge?

Joakim Landahl's outline 'From Paris to Pisa':

The first inter-nation education comparisons were, oddly enough, in the pavilions of the International Exhibitions, 1851-1904, where nations of the world showed off the best of their engineering, scientific and cultural achievements, including education. Imagine an Epcot World Pavilion of teaching. No league tables, just rooms full of exhibits of penmanship, book keeping, blackboards and tidy classrooms; demonstrations of the Hamburg versus the Stockholm method of drawing instruction (and frankly if someone doesn’t bring this back immediately I don’t know what we’re in this game for). The Paris World Fair of 1901 even featured a purpose-built mansion called- wait for it- the Palace of Education where this was displayed. Now there’s a Xanadu for some billionaire edu-Ozymandias to emulate. We should start work immediately. 

There was no attempt to compare between nations, no scoring; just national breast beating. Unlike today of course. Actually, today it’s more like an international competition to see who can pee highest up the wall, followed by years of painful and embarrassing analysis of each other’s equipment. 

Characteristics of the World’s Fair as an educational Comparison:

  1. Focus on teaching methods
  2. Predominance of the aesthetic (drawing, gymnastics, architecture)
  3. No set rules; different games competing against one another
  4. In the words of Hobsbawm it was ‘capitalism celebrating itself,’ as Landahl described it. 

Then: Sputnik. Suddenly the race for space internationalised competition in a new and politically urgent way (at least for the Grand Fromages- can you imagine how unbothered Joe Public was by all of this until someone told him or her that this really, really mattered above all else, above social security and housing and all that rubbish?). Suddenly, politicians and civil servants and generals became experts in what it was that children needed to learn. Again, how unlike today. Quote of the day was this:

‘The trouble is that we are turning out annually from our institutions of higher education perhaps fewer than half as many scientists and engineers as we did seven years ago. The greatest enemy of all mankind, Communists, are turning out twice or possibly three times as many was we do.’ (Herbert Hoover, 1957)

And if that sounds familiar then you’ve probably watched that awful piece of witless futurism, Shift Happens, with its funereal warnings that China will destroy us and India will Kabbadi freely around us. 

‘People who didn’t use to show any interest in schooling, such as satellite research admirals and nuclear physicists…have suddenly made themselves chief justices when it comes to assess what the American school ‘produces.’(Torsten Husen, professor of education, 1959)

Suddenly nations were comparing each other like models back stage at Fashion Week. Arthur Trace wrote ‘What Ivan knows that Johnny doesn’t’ in 1961. Interest was heightened in science and mathematics. If it could put monkeys in orbit or bullets in a sand bag, it was interesting. Gymnastics and penmanship suffered terribly in this brave new world. Me, I worry that the International Penmanship Race is being lost and no one is doing anything about it. You’ll be sorry.  

Them the rise of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (the IEA) in 1958. This involved statistical surveys to ‘explore the factors that effect educational achievement in different countries.’ It didn’t mean to be, but the media, and politicians, fell upon it and soon it was being called the "Knowledge Olympics". Data by itself is neutral; what we choose to do with it is not. Players gotta play, fish gotta swim, and people looking for a race will find one whatever you do. But as Landahl pointed out, 

‘Surveys were made in many different subjects (civics, literate, mathematics, science, english as a foreign language, geography….surveys were conducted irregularly (16 years between the first and the second maths study. The analysis was slow. The IEA claimed to be rather uninterested in competitive logic: ‘education is not a horse race.’’

Meanwhile in the real world GIDDEY UP HORSEY HYAH! Snouts were deep in nosebags and riders fingered their crops. The scientists could go stuff themselves, we were getting popcorn. In 1972 the Guardian wrote that ‘for British education reformers the Swedish school system is like a Christmas Tree loaded with presents- it has so many reforms it is difficult to know where to begin.’ In 1973 the IEA released the results from their six subject survey. Sweden performed like Usain Bolt. The race was on. 

The IEA still exists, but Landahl pointed out that its impact is now fairly minimal- a skinny 178 followers on Twitter (the universal benchmark of merit and influence) confirmed that.There are porn-bots tweeting in Esperanto that draw more heat than that. Contrast that with OECD education, with a more imperial 62.6K, mostly anxious head teachers, journalists and masochists. In 2000 we saw the PISA winner’s table published. If it had ever not been about national pride, it was now. The rest, as they say, is hysteria. I can’t wait to read more about this from Landahl, who gave me my biggest takeaway from the day, on a day laden with takeaways, or like presents on a Swedish Christmas tree maybe. 


The North, remembered

That was my day; everyone had theirs, and that’s the beauty. You build the day that most inspires you, and you talk to people about what you saw. And you share that with other people. That’s the beauty of collaboration in education, and that’s why working with researchED has been the biggest honour and pleasure of my life. I can’t wait for researchEd to come back next year, and anyone who wants to help us make that happen, get in touch. Maybe Norway, land of the Trolls, all tweeting furiously from under bridges? Stockholm? Copenhagen? Svalbard? You tell me. 

Next stop: Melbourne. 


  • Harry Fletcher Wood has barely seen any television beyond 1977. I teased him with the identity of JR’s killer all day long.
  • Lucy Crehan’s book Cleverlands cannot come quickly enough
  • Sweden is so child-friendly it makes the UK look like the Child Catcher. Every foyer in every hotel has a children’s play area. It’s almost as if they value children or something. 
  • Cabin culture is a big deal here: they weekend in winter or summer cabins, which involves getting away into the wild with friends and family and actually talking to one another. If only any aspect of this could catch on in the UK. 
  • The hotel room has a recycling bin
  • Scandinavians are so civil they make Canadians look like pirates.
  • "Glocalism" is a horrible word, however useful it is