Stories + Views
Mixed messages from Sweden
An interesting insight into developments in Swedish education when I participated yesterday in a seminar on Swedish free schools and their continuing impact on Britain’s education, hosted by the Swedish embassy. As LSN readers will recall, Michael Gove made much of the success of Sweden’s free schools prior to the 2010 election; as Rachel Wolf, CEO of the New Schools Network – the free school organisation over here – said, at yesterday’s seminar, the Conservative party thoroughly enjoyed invoking Sweden – Guardian readers’ egalitarian dream – in their new schools policy, just as they have been thrilled by the adoption of Charter schools by Democrat dream Barack Obama.
But, of course, as Warwick Mansell pointed out on this site, Gove has not spoken much of Sweden’s free schools since 2010, because, in fact, the evidence on their achievements and social impact has not been particularly positive.( Gove has since moved on to Poland, and the liberal quoting of African proverbs.)
At yesterday’s seminar, there was much discussion of the latest research findings on the impact of free schools ( which now amount to about 10% of secondary schools in total.) While previous studies have recorded marginal gains for these new schools, the latest study seems to confirm a slight rise in achievement in the free schools, and again, unlike previous studies which showed no long term effect of attendance at these schools ( as in increased take up of university education) there does now seem to be continuing impact . They do not however comment on the social make-up of these schools, or deal with the suggestion that benefits of free schools are largely to the children of the already well educated.
Not surprisingly, the pro free school lobby have been making much of this study, with Fraser Nelson of The Spectator – who also participated in the day’s discussion on Sweden’s economic and social policies – using the study to urge the government to move quickly in favour of for-profit schools over here.
With everyone focussing largely on statistical results – or ‘product’ – it was left to me to point out that other evidence on free schools indicates growing social and ethnic segregation, and intensifying issues regarding admissions that will be familiar to anyone who understands the English school system. In Sweden, there are long ‘pizza queues’ as parents – or often, their au-pairs – queue to get a place at so called ‘open admissions’ schools.
Three things struck me as a result of yesterday’s discussion. The first is that Sweden’s free schools brought new providers into what was essentially a comprehensive system, although a system now becoming distorted, English fashion, by competition for school places. But this makes the function and impact of free schools very different from the one that it is having here, where free schools enter an already highly stratified school system, and judging from all the various early findings on free school admissions policies, aired often on this site, seem likely to add to that.
The second thing that became very clear is the now almost unstoppeable growth of the for profit sector, worldwide. This is, of course, the essence of GERM ( the Global Educational Reform Movement) and, of course, in human terms, there are now hundreds and thousands of people and companies who are dependent on, or keen to enter, the new schools market. I suspect that mere governments – elected by those unimportant creatures ‘ the people’ – are increasingly vulnerable to, and powerless in the face of, the smooth and powerful power-point claims of the for-profit sector in education. Let’s hope that Labour holds out in its current resistance to the incursion of the for-profit sector: not least because these companies – whatever their results – create very different kinds of schools and school communities – or lack of them.
Finally, it became clear during the afternoon that Sweden’s recent plunge down the PISA tables may be less to do with free schools, in fact, and everything to do with the dramatic deregulation and liberalisation of education in Sweden that has occurred post 1992 – with the introduction of school vouchers and increased school choice, individual teachers pay and the reduction in central government regulation of standards. At the same time, there have been rapid changes in education policy from the centre, with ministers constantly ‘interfering’ in matters such as the curriculum.