What is it about the Swedes?

11th June 2004 at 01:00
A New Deal For Children?: reforming education and care in England, Scotland and Sweden

By Bronwen Cohen, Peter Moss, Pat Petrie and Jennifer Wallace

Policy Press pound;19.99

The question posed by the title immediately suggests that this is a book designed to challenge assumptions and hold policy, provision and practice up to the light. The authors do this expertly through a well-constructed comparative study of three types of children's service in England, Scotland and Sweden: early childhood education and care, schools, and school-age childcare. The countries were chosen, the authors explain, because: "Within the same short period of time each government decided to place national responsibility forI policy, oversight, funding and administration (of these three services) - within its education department."

The three national case studies provide penetrating insights into how, and how well, the reform processes in each country are achieving a genuinely integrated single-service system.

Four broad contextual dimensions are analysed in the three countries: the people and the economy; welfare regimes; government; and understandings of children. The results are considerably more comforting for policy-makers in Sweden than in England and Scotland. It is argued that the Swedish system is more successful not only in keeping levels of child poverty low, but in developing positive attitudes to "the respective responsibilities of state, market and family". The contrast is sharply drawn between Sweden, which emphasises public responsibility for universal provision, and England and Scotland, which are "more inclined to limit public responsibility to targeted needs and the regulation of the private market".

The authors also show how differing understandings of the child and childhood, and especially of pedagogy, shape attitudes and influence the quality of provision. In Sweden, for example, the 1998 curriculum for pre-schools states that children should be provided with "good pedagogical activities, where care, nurturing and learning together form a coherent whole". In the two British countries, there is no such "encompassing concept of pedagogy, which assumes the integration of care and education as normative".

Yet the power of context is not overstated. "Contexts themselves are not immutable: countries can, and sometimes do, make substantial policy shifts," the authors say.

They see 1997 as a watershed for England, and catalogue the plethora of changes that education has undergone since the Labour government was elected; they show how the establishment of the foundation stage, the rapid expansion of nursery education and the introduction of Sure Start and "baseline assessment" have begun to redraw the map of early years education. In England and Scotland, the various reforms now in place and those planned for integrating care and education will almost certainly result in a new deal for children. However, as the authors point out, simply stating that something is "new" is no guarantee of its quality, especially when our reforming zeal overburdens schools. The management of reform, it seems, has not always been as good as it needs to be.

Nevertheless, some reforms have clearly had a positive impact. There is plenty of evidence, from inspection and elsewhere, to show that learning and teaching benefit strongly from the national curriculum and the national strategies for literacy and numeracy, despite sharp differences of opinion about how pupils' progress in these areas should be measured, and the use that should be made of assessment data. Moreover, many early years settings and schools successfully meet the requirements of the foundation stage and the national curriculum, even to the extent of promoting "creativity" - a term that calls for considerably greater clarity in the current debate about the structure and management of the curriculum.

In these respects the book is less convincing in its analysis of educational provision than that of care. At times, the authors are too inclined to accept the opinions of anonymous "informants" to support preferred views of learning, teaching and the curriculum.

For example, a "leading figure in the early years field" is quoted as saying:"There is a huge void between children in primary school and other settings. A lot more work is needed so that those outside the early years sector know and understand how young children learn and what is appropriate and build on that in the bottom end of the primary school." It would not be difficult to find other worthy leading figures who take a very different view, believing we are probably closer to reconciling provision for the "early years sector" with that of "the bottom end of the primary school" than ever before.

But this is still a hugely valuable study of the choices faced by governments in providing a truly integrated system for children and young people. Of the many questions it raises, perhaps the most important is: "Do our arrangements provide a good childhood?" And this, as the authors suggest, "is an ethical and political question".

Jim Rose is former director of inspection for Her Majesty's Inspectorate

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