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.