Is Blair right to trust choice?

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Prime Minister has based his reforms on systems of school competition which are controversial in their own countries


The future of state-funded independent schools - from which Tony Blair drew inspiration for his trust school reforms - is rapidly becoming a contentious issue ahead of Sweden's general election, due this year.

In recent weeks a succession of political leaders have spoken out over the need for reform. But opinion is polarised between the ruling Social Democrats, who favour curbing the growth of state-funded independent schools, and the Center party, which wants to allow all state schools to be "self-governing independent schools".

Prime minister Goran Persson has suggested Sweden's relatively poor performance in the last round of international comparative tests could be a reflection of the high number of unqualified teachers in state independents. For instance, only 51 per cent of independent upper-secondary teachers are qualified, compared with 79 per cent in state schools.

Recently, Ibrahim Baylan, the minister for schools, claimed independent schools lead to greater ethnic segregation. He also revealed the government is in favour of making independent schools non-profit organisations.

But Center party leader Maud Olofsson believes more state control of independents will harm the quality of Swedish education. His party believes independent schools are more successful academically and financially.

Professor Holger Daun, director of the department of international education at Stockholm university, dismisses Mr Blair's claim in the foreword to the education white paper that "studies have found that schools in areas where there is more choice have improved most rapidly".

The UK's Department for Education and Skills was unable to answer a TES request for information on which studies Mr Blair was referring to. But Professor Daun said: "There's little or no evidence that I am aware of to substantiate such a claim."

Experts say it is difficult to assess what impact choice has on a geographical area because Swedish children are free to study at a state independent school anywhere in the country, but also because there are no independently assessed national tests.

Sun-Joon Hwang, head of the government division at Sweden's National Agency for Education, thinks Mr Blair might have based his comments on an English summary of a report compiled for the Swedish government and parliament, School choice and its effects in Sweden, which Mr Hwang oversaw in 2003.

But the report makes no mention of schools improving in authorities where more choice is available.

State independent schools are identified as successful, but this was due to the children of better-educated parents being "manifestly over represented in the independent schools category", the report said.

The report also warns that there is little evidence that school choice results in a more effective use of resources. "Real school choice requires over-provision, which is not cost-effective," the report said.

Nevertheless, Fredrik Reinfeldt, leader of the Moderate Party, which introduced state independent schools in the early 1990s, said they have done much to improve the quality of education and have forced state schools to compete for students. He said: "We believe schools thrive best when they teach to their strengths. Independent schools have shown that profiling (specialising) is an important way of achieving this."

With the centre-right parties currently leading in the opinion polls and advocating greater freedom for school managers, increased autonomy for schools and higher quality controls, it seems Swedish education could be in for another radical change.

International inspiration

Tony Blair, in his foreword to the education white paper, said:

"There is increasing international evidence that school choice systems can maintain high levels of equity and improve standards.

"Swedish parents can choose an alternative school to their local one, including a diverse range of state-funded independent schools. Studies have found that schools in areas where there is more choice have improved most rapidly.

"In Florida, parents can choose an alternative school if their school has 'failed' in two of the last four years. Again, studies showed test scores improved fastest where schools knew children were free to go elsewhere.

"International experiences with school choice suggest that fair funding which follows the pupil, good information and support for parents, fair admissions, and rapid intervention where schools are failing are all important in delivering choice. In designing our reforms we have learned from these experiences."

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