Free Schools: Warnings from Sweden

Henry Stewart's picture
The Swedish example has been covered before on LSN. This interview with a Swedish ex-government minister by Molly Mulready-Jones for Hackney Citizen (full article here) gives an interesting perspective on the effect free schools have had:

Sweden is much further into the Free Schools experiment than us, having introduced the first ones there over ten years ago. I spoke to ex-government minister Lena Sommestad, of Sweden’s Social Democrat party about the country’s experience of Free Schools.

“Before Free Schools were introduced, it didn’t matter what school you went to in Sweden, they were all alike, the impact of the school would be broadly the same and Sweden frequently topped international league tables for educational achievement in schools. There was then introduced the idea that we should have choice, that children should not all just go to their local school and expect the same good quality education, but parents should be able to look around and see which school they liked best, and that this would cause schools to improve, as they tried to attract pupils.

“Many people believed the promises of the advocates of Free Schools that competition would drive up effectiveness, but in fact it has had the opposite effect. Many years on and there are now dramatic differences in the quality of the education offered in different schools, overall results are down, and Sweden’s international ranking has been falling since 2003. The introduction of ‘freedom’ into our education system has meant that those with the financial resources to move into areas which have schools considered good, do so. Those without the resources to move are left with the schools no one else wants. We are now seeing segregation in our schools, along lines of social class. This is a new problem for Sweden and one that the Department for Education here is now noticing.

“Another problem is that we have profit making Free Schools, with big companies running them. We started out with a few nice Free Schools, such as Montessori schools, but then we began to see venture capital companies open Free Schools. These schools have made quite big profits, which they don’t reinvest back into the school or even spend in Sweden – they put the money offshore, into tax havens. It has been so easy to establish a Free School here that some have had very dubious people in charge of them, who don’t always deliver what they promise.

“We have seen a number of private companies running Free Schools promise to deliver for example, vocational training, to their pupils, but then fail to do so. There is now a debate in Sweden  on how to supervise and control these schools more, to ensure they are delivering what they say they will, but the downside of this is that it means increased testing on children, to check what they are actually learning.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lena Sommestad ended our conversation by telling me that people in Sweden are now starting to get a little bit more hostile to Free Schools.
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