Give parents right to run own schools
Sweden, the European country long lauded for its leftist, egalitarian traditions, delivered an unexpected message to Scotland last week - send your schools to market.
One of the country's right-leaning think tanks believes there is growing support for giving parents the right to run their own independent schools, which will raise standards for all. "True" parental choice is now top of the educational agenda in Sweden, according to Thomas Idergard, a partisan Conservative who is programme director of think-tank Timbro.
In Edinburgh to address a Scottish Conservative Party education conference, he was scathing of the previous "monolithic" system in Sweden - and, by extension, of the similar structure in Scotland where comprehensive, publicly-run schools hold sway.
Mr Idergard, who is an adviser to Magnora, the largest provider of independent schools in Sweden, said: "One type of school for all assumed that all children had the same needs and should be taught in the same way at the same time. It was a policy for equality, not for education, and the big losers were not the better off, but working-class and lower middle- class children."
A school voucher system was introduced in Sweden in 1992, with the aim of driving up standards in schools through competition between them. Enabling parents to buy into - or start up - a school of their choice, was resisted at first by the Social Democratic Party but then accepted. The party even extended it by increasing the value of the voucher from 85 per cent of the cost of educating a child in the local state school to 100 per cent.
The Swedish teacher unions also now "silently" accept the move, Mr Idergard says, since they understand that "a plurality of providers is important: it encourages public schools to improve, because they don't want to lose pupils to independent schools and hence their funding".
Despite this, 90 per cent of seven to 16 year olds in compulsory education still attend state schools, as do 80 per cent of 16 to 18s. Before 1992, the proportion was 99 per cent.
Nonetheless, better attainment appears to have followed in the wake of these changes. This is evident by the value of marks achieved by pupils during the compulsory school stages, the maximum possible value being 320 points. The average for all schools last year was 206 points; independent schools scored 226.
In national tests, independent schools also had a larger share of the top marks - despite the schools not being allowed to select their own pupils. "So there is no social bias," Mr Idergard noted.
That is only one of the differences with Sweden which would make it difficult for Scotland to follow suit. Stockholm dictates the national curriculum which all schools must follow, whereas independent schools in Scotland can plough their own furrow; and independent schools in Sweden are not allowed to charge their pupils extra beyond the value of the pupil voucher, whereas Scotland's 154 private schools can set their own fees.
The Scottish Tories also heard a warning from Marion Macleod of Children in Scotland that one country's approach could not be grafted on to Scotland, "without addressing the factors which contribute to the success of the Swedish system" - high investment in the early years, a small gap between top and low earners, and a high level of universal social services (Mr Idergard cautioned, however, against copying the much-vaunted Swedish early years system which he claimed should be producing much better results for children after seven years of education).
Thomas Idergard urged Scottish teachers not to become "ratio-fixated". He said: "The most important thing is what pupils achieve, not whether they are in a round building or a square building, a class of 30 or a class of 15.
"I would rather see a class of 30 with one good teacher than a class of 15 with a bad teacher.
"Some politicians and unions in Sweden are also ratio-fixated. But we point out that the independent sector has fewer teachers than the public schools, yet the results are much better. How is that?"