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Sweden's path to real parent choice

Pupil subsidies to help establish independent schools have raised standards all round, says Brian Monteith

I visited Sweden last year to see for myself how the public service reforms of the past 10 years have been working out. Sweden started from a position where there was no choice in the state system and fewer than 1 per cent of pupils attended fee-paying schools. All this changed in 1994 with a reform that encouraged the establishment of new independent schools, giving them the right to receive public funding on exactly the same basis as the council-run municipal schools.

It is now easier to start a new school in Sweden than anywhere else. Any organisation can put forward a scheme for a new independent school to the National Agency for Education and, as long as such schools fulfil certain basic requirements, they will be approved. They receive a payment equivalent to the average cost of educating a child in their local council area for each pupil they are able to attract. In other words, money follows the pupil to the school chosen by the pupil's parents. This means that parents now have a genuine choice between existing municipal schools and the new independent schools.

There are three important limitations within the Swedish system. First, top-up fees are not allowed, except for areas such as specialist music teaching, so it does not benefit parents who already pay fees. Second, there is no school selection on the basis of academic ability, although children can be streamed within schools. Third, all schools have to comply with national guidelines on the curriculum.

The changes have led to a large expansion in the number of independently run schools in Sweden and these have proven to be both diverse in nature and highly innovative. There are now almost 1,000 such schools, educating more than 83,000 children, which is approximately 8 per cent of all pupils.

Initially, it was thought that new independent schools would be faith-based or founded on a particular teaching method such as Steiner Waldorf schools.

In fact, most are general schools.

Even though the reforms were enacted by the centre-right coalition which was in government back in 1994, they have become firmly established and are supported by the Social Democrats, the party which is currently in power.

Indeed, six of the seven parties represented in the Swedish parliament support the scheme.

The Rydbo Friskola (Free School) is a small primary with 60 pupils at present and an extension planned to take numbers up to 90. It is situated in a small rural community about 30 miles from Stockholm in a lovely bright building in a wooded area and the necessary finance was raised with the help of the local community. The atmosphere is relaxed and the school co-exists happily with the municipal school up the road which has around 130 pupils, providing parents with a choice where none previously existed.

The same is true of the Kunskapsskolan (Knowledge School), which I visited in a challenging suburb of Stockholm and which is one of a chain of independent schools throughout Sweden. The pupils at this high school for 12-15s come from a wide variety of social and ethnic backgrounds, as the area has a large immigrant community. It is run by a young and enthusiastic headteacher with a strong emphasis on the use of IT and highly personalised teaching programmes which motivate young people to learn.

These new independent schools are not only providing a high quality of education, but there is also strong evidence to suggest the competition they provide is having a beneficial effect on municipal schools in driving up standards. Not surprisingly, 90 per cent of parents support the principle.

What might surprise many readers of The TES Scotland is that greater choice has not only led to a greater diversity of schools and increased operational freedom, but to improved pay and conditions for teachers. There is no increase in overall costs because schools are now more efficiently run.

Falling rolls in Scotland could increase the choices available to parents.

Instead, councils are closing down surplus schools and trying to eliminate choice from the system. Well, if the councils don't want to run schools, others should be free to do so and let parents decide for themselves.

All this is possible, practical and achievable. Why should we tolerate a system that restricts choice to those who can afford private education or a mortgage on an expensive house in the catchment area of a so-called good state school? We should not copy the Swedish model, for Scotland has its own needs and differences, but I firmly believe that parents in Scotland deserve the same choice that parents in Sweden enjoy.

By letting public money follow the pupil, we can take schools away from the politicians and give them back to the teachers.

Brian Monteith is the Conservative spokesman on public service reform, the subject of a party seminar this week.

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