Wisdom of soothsayers - upon Gove's entry to the Capitol

21st May 2010 at 01:00

There have been certain utterances from Conservative spokesmen in the media about the supposed merits of the Swedish education system. But before the new Education Secretary Michael Gove is let loose on a campaign to introduce such a system, I should like him to heed the following.

I write as a scientist with more than 30 years' experience of research work in both industry and academia in Denmark and Sweden, and I believe the education in Swedish secondary schools leaves much to be desired.

In humanist studies, the level is quite good, especially with modern languages, where it is much better than in Britain. But in technical subjects, standards are far from satisfactory. In maths, the situation is dire. The academic level in Swedish universities is generally high, competitive with anywhere in the world, so Swedish students, equipped with no more than the simple maths they learned at sixth-form colleges, face a major struggle. I could supply copies of this low-grade teaching material. It is a major embarrassment.

It is all the more surprising when one acknowledges, as one has to, the fact that Sweden has always been very innovative in "high-tech" industries. It has its universities to thank for that, not the schools. But think what talent has been wasted along the way.

When recruiting scientists in Denmark, my experience has been that their maths skills are much better. This is made all the more easy to judge because the Danish system of awarding grades in schools and universities is by far the most intelligent I have ever encountered.

In contrast, the Swedish grading system is very primitive. It was designed to make it hard to judge the students - all in accord with standard social-democratic tradition. The so-called friskolor ("free schools") have not done much to redress this problem, although some have tried.

I should therefore recommend Mr Gove to look a bit closer to home, to Denmark, for a school system that is closer to what educators and employers really would like to see.

Professor Robert Bywater, Helsingborg, Sweden.

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