If you look to Sweden to see how free schools work, you might “think twice”, says OECD guru

Janet Downs's picture
Autonomy is a slippery concept, said Andreas Schleicher*giving evidence to the Education Select Committee. It means different things in different countries.

The United States, for example, is held up as an autonomous system, he said, but if you ask school heads they give a different story – they feel they have little freedom.

And although free schools work well in countries like the Netherlands where, Schleicher says, anyone can set up a school, if you looked at how they operate in Sweden you might “think twice”.

Schleicher’s comments undermine statements made by the Government and sections of the media about the superiority of the US and Swedish systems. Charter schools in the former and free schools in the latter are held up as examples which England should follow. But US Charter schools only have freedom which has been available to English schools since Local Management of Schools was introduced in the 80s. And Schleicher confirms earlier concerns about the effect on Swedish education of the establishment of free schools.

Yet it was only last week that Fraser Nelson, writing in the Telegraph and the Spectator, praised the way the Swedish operators of a free school in Suffolk, IES Breckland, were dealing with failings they allegedly discovered before Ofsted arrived:

“They dealt with it in the Swedish way. This meant immediate, decisive action.”

This “decisive action” was the parachuting in of the operating manager of IES after six teachers left and the head, who had been initially employed by IES, suddenly resigned. Apparently, a plan was drawn up to turn the school round by Easter. It may be Ofsted will comment on this plan – perhaps it will raise the school from Inadequate to Requires Improvement – but we won’t know until the report is published**.

Perhaps it would be wise to have heeded warnings about allowing a for-profit Swedish provider to run a school in England. At the time Nelson praised Michael Gove for acting “unobtrusively” in paving the way for English schools to be run for profit.

But it’s now clear that Andreas Schleicher, the man Michael Gove described as “the most important man in English education”, says anyone looking at Sweden for an example of how free schools work might want to “think twice”.

*Andreas Schleicher is Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

**The Ofsted report for IES Breckland had not been published at the time of writing. However, it’s expected to be poor. A cynic might think Nelson’s two articles written before the report’s publication are an exercise in damage limitation.

NOTE: What Schleicher had to say about academies will be the subject of a separate post.
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