Sweden on edge of Seventies trap

There's a new freethinking approach abroad that Mervyn Benford

In many Swedish primary schools, process skrivning is all the rage. It is the latest swing of the pendulum in a system enjoying a new freedom from central authority. Well, relatively new. Stockholm began loosening its grip 10 years ago. The new national curriculum lays responsibility for the nation's education squarely upon schools and local authorities. And, literally, almost anything goes.

Swedish children are encouraged to write what they feel, to express themselves as effectively as they can, using their own ideas and vocabulary, and not to worry about the spelling. Swedish teachers tell me it is almost criminal to ruin a child's work with the red ink of correction.

I work a lot in Sweden, trying to introduce the process of rigorous scrutiny introduced by OFSTED without the pain and aggravation associated with Britain's schools inspection service. I lived through, and respected, the 1968-70 "Excitement of Writing" led by, among others, Sir Alec Clegg, the chief education officer for West Riding. Generations of teachers took him far too literally and decided that correct writing was not as important as writing for the sake of it.

Even when the national curriculum tightened British teaching frameworks, gut-feeling anxiety about too much pressure on accuracy, sentence structure, grammar and correction lingered. In Sweden, the British pattern gathers momentum in an alarming echo of what weakened English classroom practice a quarter of a century ago. To Swedish primary teachers over-emphasis on correction seems socially unfriendly; two-thirds of the curriculum is about instilling social goals, central to which is the concept of caring. It is seen as distinctly uncaring to indicate to a child spelling mistakes in work they have done.

There is a sharp dichotomy in quality between those classes where teachers take these things literally and the children are left virtually on their own and those where the teachers dare to intervene and offer guidance. Better writing and more secure reading occur in the latter instances.

Each day Swedish primary children have periods called "pupils' choice" or "own work", with a planeringsbok in which to plan and record it. Though some do develop these abilities to a level of mature sophistication, many merely write that "I will do page 36 of my maths book" or "I will write". They do not always indicate what they will write about and rarely choose other curriculum activity. Swedish primary teaching risks heading where we were heading in the Seventies - drunk with freedom.

The national curriculum is limited in detail, targets and levels. Each teacher is free to plan his or her own timetable and programme. While there is respect for literacy and numeracy, the notion of quality is shallow and the standard can be mediocre. Contrast this with the quality of teaching English, much more teacher-managed and teacher-influenced, and no wonder some Swedes fear they may soon become more fluent in English than in their own language.

Like the French, the Swedes see their language being overtaken by foreign words. They accept that English is as dominant as their mother-tongue, especially on the Internet, but there is now anxiety that the mother tongue may in time become a minority language.

Despite the virtually obligatory six-to-nineteen school career, The ability of the majority of Sweden's children in their own language leaves much to be desired. There is no strong emphasis on the development of speaking and listening. Staff in the daghem (the day-care system for children from the age of one) are reluctant to do much more than read stories to the children and allow them access to books. The notion of teaching at an appropriate level or in an appropriate manner is alien to their professional consciousness.

I asked a group of primary teachers about levels of achievement for pupils by the end of their first school year (by which time they are aged seven).

In reading, they decided, good achievement would be to read a three-letter, phonically easy word; in writing, possibly to copy what an adult has written. Daghem teachers in the same group believed that by then most children would be able to read short, simple sentences, and write similar short statements freely. As in Britain, when the big advances in quality come it will be in the pre-school experience.

The level of attainment is low, relative to what is possible. Schools have some published reading schemes, but they are rarely used outside the first months of learning to read. As soon as possible children graduate to real books. The work of well-known writers such as Astrid Lindgren is produced in special school versions and some series present factual stories in language geared to developing levels of reading ability. Reading is seen to be something to be located in the real world, with purpose and meaning as high priorities. Standards are not especially a problem but in my visits to schools I did feel that more is possible, and possible earlier.

Teachers teach spelling, handwriting and grammar as they see fit. The children learn lists of words. They do comprehension exercises. They write letters. Some do book reviews. Many teachers rightly see topic studies as an important vehicle for language skills but do not consciously teach language skills within topic work. Writing is more about function than the communication that should be its function.

The passion for "the writing process", in which writing is about saying something personal, is akin to what we call creative writing. Teachers expect their children to write. They encourage good vocabulary. They display finished work as a stimulus and as recognition of individual effort.

Teachers do not always understand why one piece they rate more highly is actually of higher quality. They recognise but do not always understand the developmental significance of moving from short, simple sentences to more complex ones with subordinate clauses. The same applies to the use of relative pronouns and conjunctions.

Teachers lack the maps that delineate development. It is such maps we needed, and which the national curriculum provided, as we swung liberally to our brand of primary freedom after decades of Gradgrind approaches that deterred children from writing and from having anything to say.

Despite the freedom, most pupils do not respond joyously to it. Many lack the tools to express themselves, and their work is often terse and poorly developed. Sadly, teachers feel well-versed in how to develop these abilities.

The Swedes are in a position to learn from our mistakes. Teachers there have many other things moving in their favour and much of this is a legitimate expression of their deep sense of democracy, including the democratic rights of pupils in schools. But in terms of academic quality, they are moving inexorably towards trouble unless they discover the kind of professional understanding and rigour that can secure children's learning.

* Mervyn Benford is a registered schools inspector in Britain

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