Russell talks up Swedish system
The Education Secretary has taken what could be one of the most significant steps yet to extend parent power, opening up the intriguing prospect of a useful parliamentary alliance with the Conservatives.
Michael Russell ended his two-day fact-finding mission to Finland and Sweden this week, determined to bring together Scottish local authorities and Swedish free schools. He said he found a school, near Stockholm, set up by two mothers "very impressive".
Accompanied throughout his visit by The TESS, Mr Russell went on Tuesday to the Viktor Rydberg Gymnasium, minutes from the Swedish capital, which he said was "outgoing and educationally open".
"The school was populated by intelligent and gifted young people which drove the gifted, talented and motivated teachers," he said.
Scotland does not fully understand the concept of free schools, Mr Russell believes. "To understand `free schools' as private schools is entirely wrong," he said. "They are not in any sense private schools as we understand them. They do not charge fees - they get paid per capita in the same way other schools are paid. They are state schools provided by somebody else."
He urged any Scottish local authority interested in the model to talk to him about it. "We will help make the connection with Stockholm and they can see how it might work for them," he said.
Mr Russell stressed he was not committed to pursuing the model, but it was "worth discussing". "Is there room in the system for different ideas? Already we have Catholic denominational schools. It's an interesting possibility," he said.
In the forthcoming general election, the Swedish system will be a key issue in England, where Michael Gove, the Tories' education spokesman, is an ardent supporter of free schools. He believes that, by establishing up to 2,000 of these schools, parents would have more choice and existing schools would be forced to improve.
Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservatives' schools spokeswoman, has also argued for an end to the state's "monopoly" over provision of education. Jordanhill School in Glasgow, which is unique in being funded directly by the Scottish Government, was an example of the success that could be achieved when schools ran their own affairs, she argued.
In last week's Conservative-sponsored debate in the Scottish Parliament on "free schools", Mr Russell appeared to support in principle East Lothian Council's proposed community-based "trust" schools.
"There is an awful lot of goodwill about moving forward and councils that are creatively thinking about possibilities, such as East Lothian Council, are to be encouraged," he said. "Nobody knows the outcome of East Lothian Council's journey."
His comments in support of the Swedish system may fuel speculation that the Education Secretary is minded to give stronger backing to the East Lothian model.