Taking the Eden out of Sweden

3rd April 2009 at 01:00
The Scandinavian `free schools' system is not the panacea politicians believe it to be

Grand claims have been made about Sweden's state-funded independent schools and their potential to transform education. Michael Gove, the shadow schools secretary, has declared that, if the Conservatives gain power, they will copy aspects of Sweden's "free schools", which will, he says, help turn schools into engines of social mobility.

In The Independent last year, Mr Gove wrote that Sweden's independent schools have broken "the bureaucratic stranglehold", and that, far from "driving segregation, these schools have driven up standards for all".

These are pretty strong claims if free schools are to be the basis for the next round of reforms in England. But do such claims accord with reality?

My own recent experience talking to teachers in Sweden paints a very different picture. Earlier this year, I was among a party of union representatives hosted by the Swedish teachers' union Lararforbundet and the support staff union Kommunal.

We weren't just there to hear their concerns; we also talked to the National Agency for Education (NAE), the Swedish government's operational arm, and the organisations that run free schools.

We learnt much that was positive about them. Swedish municipal and independent schools have more extensive common requirements placed on them than in England. For example, independent schools are required to abide by the "character", "general objectives", "fundamental values" and "knowledge and skills" of state schools. Which means they have similar approaches to the curriculum and pedagogy in both types of school, although there is little sharing of professional practice.

Admissions in Sweden are also very different from England's. Free schools must admit all who apply, except those who will cause "considerable organisational or financial difficulties", so choice is limited for disabled and special needs pupils.

And what did we make of the free schools we saw? The one we visited was led by an innovative and capable principal. He had no animosity toward the municipal system and regularly attended their conferences on school improvement. His attitude is, apparently, not exceptional.

What Swedish unions are really concerned about are the profits being earned from public money by the educational companies, such as Kunskapsskolan, that run the free schools. Indeed, the growth of such companies is dependent on their profit potential - and profits appear to be derived mostly from employing higher percentages of lower-paid support staff. So on average 84 per cent of municipal school staff are qualified teachers, while this is the case for only 60 per cent of staff in independent schools. Reducing professional development and delaying improvements to facilities also contribute to these companies' profits.

And what of Mr Gove's claims that these schools have higher standards and encourage social mobility? While they have higher results on average than municipal schools, the NAE says a significant factor for parents who opt for the former is "choosing a particular desirable social context". In other words, free schools are a magnet for the middle class. Results reflect the differing social composition of both types of school.

Significantly, the NAE makes no claims that standards are higher in free schools because of their independent status. Indeed, the agency has questioned the internal assessments of the schools' learning certificates for 16-year-olds, deeming them "not satisfactory" because they have fewer teachers with grading expertise.

It would be wrong to ignore the positive features of Sweden's free schools, including their good relations with parents and generally positive results and activities. Yet the agency points to a system that shows, "fairly unambiguously, that segregation has increased". Mr Gove may have seen "higher than average" numbers of ethnic minority pupils in free schools, but the agency found that many were children from "foreign backgrounds" whose parents were relatively well-off.

Another factor not referred to by the Conservatives is that there is a determination in Sweden to maintain what the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development calls "the decades-old expansion in educational participation". They achieve this by devoting 6.4 per cent of the country's gross domestic product to education - a far higher percentage than the UK.

Mr Gove has committed the cardinal sin of seeing only what he wants to see. He neglects to mention his party's decision to drop its education spending commitments, in direct contrast with Sweden's commitment to maintain their much higher levels. He also fails to recognise that the issue of choice and social segregation is one of class, not race. His claim that independent schools have driven up standards is not borne out by analysis. And it is impossible to detect any evidence that Sweden's bipartite system has improved social mobility.

Finally, Mr Gove's claim that he would both ban profit-making by education companies and expect enthusiasm for running schools seems fanciful given that the growth of Sweden's independent schools has been fuelled by the profit incentive. Even Policy Exchange, the Tories' favourite think tank, suggests that "for-profit groups are more likely to have the necessary scale and ambition". And Labour promoted the same misinformed picture about choice and diversity in Sweden's schools in its 2005 white paper, Higher Standards.

The message from Sweden is not that its free schools have "broken the bureaucratic stranglehold", but that their choice agenda has introduced troubling features to a cohesive system. Mr Gove should be pushing his party towards enhancing social cohesion and high standards, not encouraging it to follow the chimera of choice.

John Bangs, Head of education, NUT.

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