Recipe for reform? Pinch of Swedish and US systems, then mix with academies

27th March 2009 at 00:00
A right-of-centre think tank says we should look overseas for ways of raising standards in England's state schools. But is there evidence to back its proposals?

A blend of Swedish free schools and the US charter school systems should be used to reform England's state education system, according to a report published this week by think tank Policy Exchange.

A Guide to School Choice Reform, by the right-of-centre advisory body, also noted that allowing independent providers into the state education system while giving schools greater freedoms would "dramatically" increase education standards.

The study calls for the existing academies programme to be expanded, including taking on struggling primaries.

Natalie Evans, Policy Exchange's deputy director and co-author of the report, said: "The international evidence is that school choice can dramatically raise pupils' achievement. It also appears that the longer countries stick with such reforms, the greater the improvement is.

"No one country has a perfect system, and we should blend together the most successful elements of school reforms in the United States and Sweden, and the academies programme in the UK."

Ms Evans also said: "Three-quarters of nurseries in the UK are run by private providers, and only party politics prevented Tony Blair from allowing private companies to take part in the academies programme. The evidence suggests that allowing independent providers to run schools could help raise standards for the worst off, so we shouldn't rule it out for ideological reasons."

Policy Exchange is widely recognised to be very close to the Conservative Party as it develops key elements of policy ahead of the forthcoming general election.

Policy Exchange's reforms fall neatly into line with the Conservatives' existing policy, which would see them expand the academies programme, including helping struggling primary schools, while increasing the choice available to parents.

The study calls for a shake-up of the funding strategy, which would work on a per pupil basis, again as set out in the Tories' proposed pupil premium policy.

The report says the success of the Swedish and US systems means England's education system should follow suit.

However, the NUT has blasted these conclusions, claiming there is "no evidence" to suggest that school choice provides better education.

"They are trying to put together a narrative and theme about the notion of school choice without looking at the macro evidence, such as Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment), which goes against the idea of school choice," John Bangs, the NUT's head of education, told The TES. "It is trying to show global evidence that school choice works, when there is no such evidence."

"Pisa has shown that when contextual factors are taken into account, there is very little difference between state and independent schools," he added.

The Policy Exchange report states that nine out of 10 parents of children attending Swedish free schools rate them positively, and grades are consistently higher. Of the 4,500 charter schools in the US, three-quarters of longitudinal studies have shown an increase in attainment, and they have received the backing of Arne Duncan, the new US education secretary.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, warned that "extreme caution" should be exercised when trying to compare education systems in other countries to help improve our own.

"Far too much time, energy and public money is wasted as a result of the current obsession of politicians and think tanks with school structures and autonomy," Ms Keates said.

"There is no evidence that different types of schools or more independence are key factors in raising standards for all children and young people. A review of the countries which achieve high educational standards demonstrates that the common factor is generous welfare state provision."

The report also calls for provision for academies to be run by a range of bidders, from parent groups, charities, trusts or for-profit organisations, but overseen by a local or regional "authoriser", although not a local authority, many of which, it claims, are "hostile" to the academy programmes.

Jim Knight, the schools minister, called for Conservative leader David Cameron to "come clean" about what his version of the Swedish schools model would be.

Mr Knight said: "The truth is that the Tories are proposing a risky, free market experiment paid for by billions of cuts to our school rebuilding programme.

"Instead of stepping in to tackle under-performance - as we are doing through National Challenge and our accelerated academies programme - the Tories would just let under-performing schools wither and let the market decide."


Key proposals from A Guide to School Choice Reform

- Expand the academies programme to include poorly performing primaries as well as successful secondaries. Make selection of academy providers subject to public consultation.

- Transfer management of academies from Department for Children, Schools and Families to local and regional "authorisers" - not the local education authority.

- Introduce per-pupil funding direct from government designed around three components: a base element, an area cost adjustment dependent on the cost of hiring staff in different areas, and, if applicable, a pupil premium - additional funding for pupils from deprived communities.

- With the new funding formula and regional authorisers in place, new academies should be commissioned where there is "genuine" demand.


Sam Freedman, former head of the Policy Exchange education unit, has joined the Conservatives as special adviser to shadow schools secretary Michael Gove, previously chairman of the think tank.

In a recent TES comment piece, Mr Freedman wrote: "If politicians remain responsible for schools, it is only to be expected that they will want to have a say in how they are run and what is taught in them."

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