Why Gove no longer cites Sweden as a 'model' for education reform

Warwick Mansell's picture
In recent years, Sweden has frequently been cited as a model for education reform in England by Michael Gove. This is changing, with only one reference to the country in November’s white paper.
And when you look at the country’s recent results in the most well-known international study – the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s triennial “PISA” (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests for 15-year-olds – it is easy to see why.
It is reasonably well-known that Sweden’s recent record in international tests is not great. This is a problem for Mr Gove, since Sweden’s introduction of state-funded but independently managed free schools have helped shape the coalition’s policy in this country.
However, I have just been looking again at the detail of the most recent round of PISA tests, and specifically analysis from the OECD which looks at trends in countries’ performance over time. And what emerges paints the direction of travel of results in Sweden in a very poor light.
The OECD’s analysis compares countries’ results in reading in the last round of PISA tests, which were taken in 2009, with those of the first, in 2000. Of the 38 countries included (the UK does not feature, since statistical problems with the way the tests were conducted in 2000 meant results here were not counted officially in that year), Sweden experienced the third largest fall in average scores.
It was one of only seven countries to experience an increase in the proportions of its pupils scoring below level two in PISA’s six-level scale, and one of 10 countries to record a fall in the number of pupils performing well on the tests (at levels five and six).
There is a similar trend in Sweden in both the PISA maths test – when results between 2003 and 2009 were compared – and in science, where scores from 2006 and 2009 were analysed.
In addition, the country appears to have a relatively acute problem with boys’ reading, as measured by these tests. In all countries, girls score higher than boys in the PISA reading tests, but Sweden is one of only nine countries where the gap grew significantly from 2000 to 2009.
The OECD also analysed whether changes in a country’s socio-economic composition could explain any changes in test scores and found that, in Sweden, they did not account for the downward drift.
Some might look at these results and say they demonstrate how Sweden’s free schools policy, introduced in 1992, has been a failure. But I would not go this far: all international testing studies should be interpreted carefully, not least because, in this case, free schools are only one of a large number of policies and background factors which could come into play.
It is also true that, while producing rankings of various countries’ improvements/failings in various aspects of PISA is tempting, in fact the differences between countries, and changes over time, are often relatively small.
At a London conference on the future of state education in November, organised by the Trades Union Congress and which I chaired, a representative from the Swedish teachers’ union reported that there was little evidence that the introduction of free schools had had any effect on the quality of local authority schools there, positive or negative.
Nonetheless, the Swedish results from PISA – and equally unimpressive findings from a rival testing study which reported two years ago, and which saw Sweden finishing below England in all four maths and science tests – illustrate a struggle for Mr Gove if he wants to cite the country’s reforms as evidence of a way forward.
By the way, the United States, another model for the coalition given its enthusiasm for test-based accountability and charter schools, has also not seen any major improvement in its reading and maths results in recent years.
Reading test scores were fractionally down in the years 2000 to 2009, with the percentage of both low- and high-performing pupils virtually unchanged. Maths scores were also largely unchanged between 2003 and 2009, while science scores did improve between 2006 and 2009.
This, it should be said, is broadly in line with international trends, which have seen average test scores in reading performance falling marginally in the 2003 to 2009 years, while those in maths and science have remained more or less constant in recent testing rounds.
But, again, it hardly looks like a ringing endorsement of American policies over the period, which have included George W Bush’s much-debated No Child Left Behind policy, under which pupils are tested annually, with serious consequences following for underperforming schools.
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Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 12/01/2011 - 20:04

This is very interesting Warwick. I'd be very interested to know what you think of the research discussed in this post: http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2010/12/new-research-claims-to-sho...
This study produced some evidence that "for-profit" schools in Sweden raised standards significantly. I questioned the basis of the research, but didn't really get to the bottom of it all, if I'm honest. The researcher says that Sweden suffered a "perfect storm" of bad circumstances in the wider society (mass immigration, unemployment etc) which eroded standards, but that his research shows "for-profit" schools made significant progress nevertheless. The PISA appears to contradict this research. Interestingly, Gove hasn't cited this research either because I think he's not comfortable about introducing "for-profit" schools in the UK, but he may change his mind. He is clearly under immense pressure from the right wing of his party to expand the free schools movement massively, cf The Sunday Times' reports this weekend.

Mike Stallard's picture
Sun, 26/06/2011 - 15:47

Along with a lot of local people (hundreds actually) we are trying to start up a school here. We have contacted and are working closely with a Provider whom I am not allowed, under EU regulations, to name. Earlier on we worked closely with a Swedish organisation which was recommended by Michael Gove before the election.
I thought (silly me) that a for profit organisation which cared deeply about teaching would be just the thing for our situation. Wrong! Now it is the DfE which decides who gets what, who gets which children, who can and who cannot be expelled, what arrangements there are for the flood of "vulnerables", what buildings are suitable.
Me, I see this as parallel to the Russians who once had State Shops (GUM) which did not work, alongside Party Shops which did. To me, the State Schools and the Independent Schools correspond perfectly.
So I thought (silly me) that introducing Tescos and ASDA might do the trick and provide choice and therefore raise standards considerably.
What a prat I was! GUM is still there under another name.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 26/06/2011 - 17:03

Mike - I am very relieved the hear that the DFE does still care about all those things, like protection for vulnerable pupils, that you find so objectionable.

Mike Stallard's picture
Sun, 26/06/2011 - 19:34

OK Here is some sort of answer. It gives politicians and educational experts a very warm feeling inside when they are seen to be caring and sharing. Nobody (they think) will object to motherhood and apple pie or to helping the vulnerable.

The problem is, in Cambridgeshire, the statemented pupils get the best deal. They quite often get one to one teaching inside and outside the classroom. They cannot, however much they wreck the future of other people, be expelled or, really,disciplined. They really do run amock. If you reward anything in schools, as you must know, people go for their share.

My point is not to hurt the vulnerable good guys by indulging the feckless, the badly behaved or the wreckers at their expense.

My point is that the clever, hardworking and obedient children get a really mucky deal at the moment. Heavens, I know of one boy of 11 with a reading age of 23. He is statemented and remedial! And he swore a lot of times at a teacher friend of mine in a lesson, bringing the whole thing to a halt. Why? He ought to be at the top of the school and held as a precious example to the rest, oughtn't he? Instead he ruins the chances of everyone else.

But, hey, the people who run the school feel really good and that is what matters.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 13/01/2011 - 17:16

Two comments: The 2000 UK PISA figures, which the OECD has warned are unreliable and should not be used, are being cited by the Government in their Press Releases, the DofE Business Plan and the Foreword (signed by Cameron and Clegg) to the Education White Paper. The Government is using these discredited figures for propaganda purposes.

Secondly: 2009 PISA for UK did indeed show a drop in ranking to 14 BUT the chart produced by the OECD* said that despite this drop in ranking the evolution score of the UK compared with 2006 was +2. Sweden, however, had an evolution score of -8. These evolution scores do not seem to have been widely reported.

*Students performance in OECD countries: Results of the PISA 2009 survey available from http://blog.oecdfactblog.org/?p=339

Mike Stallard's picture
Sun, 26/06/2011 - 15:40

I am simply bursting to ask this question: What are schools for?
Are they exam factories which produce a line of results which can be measured?
Are they citizenship factories which produce a line of citizens all thinking the right thoughts and voting for the right party?
Are they factories to produce Christians/Muslims/Hindus/Buddhists/Jews?

We all pretend that they are Academies where Plato and Aristotle produce deep thinkers. Rubbish! Lots of screaming women dominating unruly and increasingly threatening and subdued boys and rather too fruity girls would be more like it, I sometimes think.

I would be genuinely pleased if someone could please tell me why we spend so very much on them. Why?

Keith Turvey's picture
Sun, 26/06/2011 - 20:17

And you want to start a school. You've obviously had a bad experience somewhere down the line I don't doubt but please don't condemn the whole system based upon it.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 26/06/2011 - 19:39

I wonder if you know many parents of children with special educational needs? Would you be able to tell us where in Cambridgeshire you are planning to start your school?

Keith Turvey's picture
Sun, 26/06/2011 - 20:12

So let me get this right Mike. You're saying that in Cambridgeshire most children's education is being wrecked by the statemented kids because the LA/schools are too caring towards those that for whatever reason have some kind of specific or special need?

If this is what you're saying you can't be that aware of the complexity of some children's lives. Children finding a parent who's taken their own life, addicted/abusive parents are just a few of the worse scenarios Ive come across in my career that have a profound affect on children and can lead to disturbed behaviour. I think the vast majority of people would expect schools and teachers to put in additional support and care in such situations like these as well as the other numerous reasons why children educational development can be affected Whilst I understand that other children's education can be disrupted where there is a breakdown of behaviour management, this is usually specific to certain schools where there is also a breakdown in effective management, leadership and effective teaching. Not a symptom of an education system that is too caring which you seem to be claiming?

Mike Stallard's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 05:58

Now, please, answer my question and stop being personal.

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