Editorial - Cover version of Swedish hit is out of tune

12th March 2010 at 00:00
Labour is wrong to deride free schools, but Tory version isn't faithful to the original

Sweden was the place our politicians rushed to for an education. The Conservatives in particular used it to show how non-selective, state-funded independent free schools could revolutionise the way children were taught. Now the Swedes have serious concerns about their education system and have switched to playing S.O.S., while the Tories are stuck on choruses of Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (pages 32-34).

The Swedes are seriously worried that they have slipped down the international league tables and that their 15-year-olds now struggle to attain the standards their 14-year-olds did in the mid 1990s. Normally, educational news in Sweden would be of slightly less interest to the British electorate than the cotton harvest in Kazakhstan. But as the Tories have built their prospectus for school reform on the Swedish model, its flaws have been seized on by the Government to trash the Opposition's plans. Well, Voulez-vous Take a Chance with it, really?

Unfortunately for Labour, Sweden's educational malaise seems to have precious little to do with the introduction of free schools. There is no evidence that they have harmed performance. In fact, they are highly popular with parents and staff, which explains why none of the country's main political parties wants to turn the clock back. Unfortunately for the Tories, while most studies credit free schools with lifting performance to some degree, there has been little or no correlation with pupil background, which makes measuring improvement difficult. Indeed, according to some observers, while the reforms haven't harmed the Swedish school system, they haven't benefited it greatly either.

What has damaged Swedish education are the contexts in which free and state schools operate - huge variations in local authority spend, lax inspections, failing schools that were not fixed, poor-quality teaching, the absence of comparable national tests, and so on. The word "accountability" does not exist in Swedish. Fortunately for the Swedes, there was a place not too far away where they could learn a lot about it. So while the English have been belting out Thank You For The Music, the Swedes have been quietly humming Knowing Me, Knowing You ...

Plenty of critics refuse to be seduced by this duet. They argue, with some justification, that British parents already have choices that Swedes historically lacked, that the proposed costs would be huge and that it is simply not possible to transplant one country's education system into another's. On the other hand, it is possible the Swedish model might perform better in England than it does on its home turf. Not only do we have the accountability structures Sweden lacks, we also have the data that would make performance between schools comparable.

How ironic then if, once imported, the model were to fail because the Tories refused to allow free schools the freedoms their supporters insist are essential - the ability to make a profit and a large degree of control over the curriculum. That would be befangd, as they say in Gothenborg. Anyone for Waterloo?

Gerard Kelly

Editor: E gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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