October 1, 2008

What is the Swedish Schools Model, and Can UK Education Learn From It?


The big question

Why are we asking this now?

Michael Gove, the Conservatives' schools spokesman, spelt out his blueprint for education at his party's annual conference - announcing that his party would adopt the Swedish model of allowing parents' groups, charities and companies to set up their own "free" which they could then run themselves.

How does the Swedish system work?

Under the policy, which was first introduced in the 1990s, parents are given a sum of money (around the equivalent of 6,000 per pupil) that they can then use to send their child to the school of their choice. They can, if they want to, set up their own schools which are outside the state system but for which parents can use what is effectively a voucher to enrol their children at the school. Since the policy was adopted (it had been languishing in policy wonks' in-trays for some 20 years before receiving the go-ahead) around 900 new schools have been established - with freedom from government control to run their own affairs.

How widespread would the scheme be if the Conservatives adopted it?

Mr Gove has indicated that - if it was as successful here as it has been in Sweden - it could lead to the setting up of as many as 3,000 new schools. In his speech to the Conservative party conference, he said: "We would allow education specialists - charities, philanthropists, existing federations and groups of parents - to set up new schools as an alternative to failing schools." His assertion is based on the belief that it would be parents in under-performing schools who would go for this new option. "We are confident this will raise standards - in Sweden 15 per cent of children are educated in free, independent state schools," he added. "Standards have risen in those new schools and in other state schools."

Is everybody in favour of the idea then?

No they are not. Schools Minister Andrew Adonis believes what he calls "Gove's Swedish schools experiment" would cost billions of pounds to implement. "He needs to tell us what he would cut to pay for these schools," he said. "Until he can answer this question, their [the Conservatives' 'free' schools] are just fantasy schools compared to our 1,200 real academies and new or rebuilt schools nationwide." Mr Gove has said he would take money from the Building schools for the Future programme - under which every secondary school will be refurbished. He argues that it is too bureaucratic and, of course, if parents are opting with their feet to send their children to new schools, the money spent on old buildings will not be necessary.

What about the teaching unions?

They are also opposed to the idea - believing that the proposals will spell planning chaos for hundreds of schools that would find it difficult to know how many pupils they would have to cater for. Of course, the army of philanthropists, parents' groups and companies that start operating schools may not give their members the same recognition deals they currently enjoy with local authority schools and even the flagship academies that have been set up by the present Government.

Why do the Conservatives believe it's necessary to overhaul education so radically?

This is one thing all parties are agreed upon - that there is too much bureaucracy at present in the running of state schools. Only this week Tim Hastie Smith, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference - which represents 250 of the most elite independent schools in the country - called on the Government to abandon its "nannying" attitude towards the state sector and give headteachers the same freedom that independent school heads enjoy to run their own schools.

Hastie Smith cited one independent school head who said: "I don't need to consult before I introduce Mandarin or the International Baccalaureate." Lord Adonis added that - as far as the Government was concerned - it had presided over a period of unprecedented autonomy for schools with the establishment of the new privately- sponsored flagship diplomas.

What about the performance gap between private and state education?

A study published yesterday by the HMC, compiled by researchers Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson from the University of Buckingham's centre for Education and Employment indicated that independent schools within the HMC were outperforming state grammar schools - despite having a less selective intake to work with (31 per cent of pupils getting three straight A grade passes at A-level as opposed to 23 per cent for the grammar schools).

The study's conclusion was: "A crucial issue for Government is to find ways of harnessing the power and effectiveness of school autonomy throughout the school system". The Conservatives, who would also massively expand the academies programme, believe the introduction of schooling along the lines of the Swedish model will do that.

So if there's this much agreement, why are the Tories' proposals causing such controversy

It boils down to controversy over the idea of a voucher system. It has been toyed with by the Conservatives ever since Sir Keith Joseph was education secretary in Margaret Thatcher's administration more than 20 years ago. Even Sir Keith, the "guru" of the free market, eventually abandoned the idea, believing the bureaucracy needed to implement it would be too unwieldy.

The idea resurfaced towards the end of the John Major era when the Government introduced vouchers for nursery places. That was scrapped by Labour and, according to inspectors, had unfortunate consequences which were not foreseen. It had been introduced as an attempt to stimulate demand for private nursery places but ended up in closing parts of the private sector as ruthless primary school heads insisted parents sent their children to their nurseries - on pain of losing a place in the primary school.

That, of course, will not be duplicated by the "free" schools model but does show the law of unintended consequences working to ill effect. In Sweden, it has not been unknown for "free" schools to adopt the tactics of estate agents and send "flyers" round their neighbourhoods in an attempt to attract more pupils.

Will it be successful then?

That is the key question. The history of education is littered with governments paying lip service to the needs of allowing parents a bigger say in the running of their children's schools. Both previous Conservative governments and the current Labour administration have said they would welcome parents setting up their own schools, yet so far only one (the Charter school in Lambeth, south London). Michael Gove's task is to make his proposals appear more appealing than any of his predecessors'.

Will the Swedish-style school system work in the UK?


*Parents, disappointed in access at state schools, want more say in the way their children's education works

*It will extend choice as charities, private companies, and faith groups set up their own schools

*In Sweden, standards have risen - and 900 new schools in a decade suggest that the changes are popular


*Few parents want to run schools themselves - all they want is a good education for their children

*The voucher system introduced to allow parents more choice will simply increase bureaucracy

*In academies and "trust" schools, business, faith or university partners can already have a say

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