International travel, as they say, broadens the mind. I certainly found a trip to Stockholm last week to be very educational. I went as a guest to the national conference of the Swedish National Union of Teachers, which is held every four years.
Because where Sweden leads, England follows. Former education secretary Michael Gove was very keen to use the Swedish free school model when he established a similar policy in England. He argued that Swedish free schools halted declining school standards by breaking what he called the "bureaucratic stranglehold" of the government and local authorities in Sweden, forcing existing schools to "raise their game" and resulting in the "biggest improvements in educational outcomes being generated in those areas with the most new schools".
Which sounds very good, doesn’t it? Why wouldn’t England want to follow such a successful example of international education success?
The harsh winds of poor performance
There is just one problem with this argument. It is not true. The reputation Sweden once enjoyed for high quality state education has been buffeted by the harsh winds of poor performance in the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) league tables. Between 2000 and 2012 Sweden’s Pisa scores dropped more sharply than those of any other participating country, from close to average to significantly below average. In the most recent Pisa assessment in 2012, Sweden’s 15-year-olds ranked 28 out of 34 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in maths and 27 in reading and science.
Sweden’s rapid and dramatic decline follows a raft of education policy changes in the late 1980s and 90s. In that period there was rapid devolution from the centre to local authorities; teacher training, exams and grades were changed. Some 800 free schools were set up across Sweden, many run by private companies, which are allowed to make a profit. (Does any of this sound familiar? Is it happening in an education system near to you?)
Talking to teachers, education ministers and opposition MPs in Sweden last week it became clear to me that there is a huge national debate there about declining educational standards. Free schools are in the frame not as part of the solution but as one of the root causes of the problem. The youthful-looking education minister, Gustav Fridolin, is clear where the causes of Sweden’s educational problems lie. He blames a fragmentary school system, which has become a market that is not one "where everyone has the same possibilities and the same information", where "the educated parents with strong resources use the possibility to choose schools". And the results are clear; Sweden’s schools are becoming more socially segregated. There is grade inflation, particularly in free schools, where the pressure to get results to demonstrate their superiority to state schools is most intense. Politicians are puzzled. Why has it all gone so badly wrong, they ask? And what can be done about it?
The conundrum for Swedish politicians is that the problems in Sweden are not confined to pupils’ educational performance, but extend to the teaching profession generally. It is becoming harder to recruit graduates into teaching in Sweden. Following the introduction of performance-related pay (only teachers’ starting salaries are nationally determined – after that pay rates are negotiated individually), wages have fallen in relation to other graduate professions. The number of unqualified teachers, working predominantly in free schools, has risen. (Again, does any of this sound familiar? Is it happening in an education system close to you?)
In my speech, on behalf of the international guests at the opening of the conference (very grand, in the Swedish opera house, before His Royal Highness Prince Daniel, no less), I summarised what we know about successful education systems.
Which is this: in these education systems there is wide consultation about education policy, with a wide range of stakeholders, including employers, parents, and, crucially, teaching unions. Education policy is agreed with the widest possible range of stakeholders and is supported by a strong implementation plan backed by proper resources, including professional development for teachers and school leaders.
But, most fundamentally, successful education systems have a medium to long-term view, usually 15 to 20 years, in which policy is carefully implemented. These countries don't throw everything up in the air every five years when a new parliament is elected.
And I said one more thing (and here it got a little political, but it seemed to go down well with my Swedish teacher colleagues). I said that neither Swedish nor English children should have the funding provided by the state for their education misused and end up lining the pockets of international company owners, or the people entrusted by their governments to run these schools. In England, examples abound of the misuse of education funding by the chief executives of multi-academy trusts (MATs) and free schools. The Department for Education has twice been criticised by the National Audit Office because it cannot keep track of spending in academies and free schools. It is too easy, and there are, unfortunately, too many examples of the misuse of public money in MAT and free school spending.
And the worst thing of all? All this was predictable and predicted. Sweden, it turns out, was not a good model on which to base English education policy. But I see no change of direction from education secretary Nicky Morgan – and no reverse gear backing away from the fragmentation of England’s schooling system.
Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL teaching union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL