performance not necessarily better
difficulty of closing non performing
dominated by companies instead of parents coming together
The Swedish module
By David Turner
Published: May 23 2010 21:01 | Last updated: May 23 2010 21:01
|A day in the life of an international English school in Taby, north of Stockholm. Run privately with state funding, it is of a standard that Britain’s government is seeking to equal. Almost every country is searching outside its borders for answers to its educational problems|
Lesley Surman, a 42-year-old housewife and mother of three – “working class and proud of it” – wants to set up a new secondary school in the west Yorkshire village of Birkenshaw.
Mrs Surman is no fantasist. She is part of a group of about 60 activists trying to establish the school in 2013 because she harbours doubts about the alternatives available to local parents. “We want to get back to core values, pastoral care and a school where you celebrate winning.” Instead of offering “beauty therapy and mechanics” – vocational subjects increasingly offered in the state sector – she would prefer a focus on nine or so academic subjects, including science and history.
The answer to her problems could lie several hundred miles across the North Sea. Tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech, outlining the new UK ruling coalition’s legislative priorities, is expected to use Sweden’s “free schools” as a model for an overhaul of the English education system, making it easier for parents and teachers to create privately run but state-funded primary and secondary schools.
SERVICES TO SUPPLY
Realising the government’s plans for free schools will need a mix of grassroots enthusiasm, independent and professional assistance, and top-down management. Charities such as the New Schools Network are trying to maximise the effectiveness of local enthusiasm by bringing together parents, teachers and organisations. It has had more than 500 inquiries.
Local parents and teachers who want to set up a school must submit their plans to the education department. Waiting in the wings are for-profit companies that run schools abroad, such as Nord Anglia, EdisonLearning SIC and Sweden’s Kunskapsskolan. The companies would not be allowed to own schools but could provide teaching or other services. Charities that already have schools in England could also supply services or start up free schools.
“Free” in the sense of independent, these private establishments were introduced in 1995 to provide greater choice for parents unable to afford the fees for Sweden’s tiny (now even tinier) privately funded sector. Underpinning the policy of the country’s centre-right government was the free-market principle that competition would raise standards in all schools as state institutions were forced to work harder to keep up.
The UK government has similar hopes for England (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are responsible for their own education policies) – where, in spite of large numbers of private, fee-charging, schools, 93 per cent of children are state educated.
England is just one of many nations that has long grappled with problems in its education system. And, while difficulties may differ among countries, it is far from the only one to look to the free schools for answers. Denmark, Norway, Latvia, Scotland, Georgia, China and other Asian states have also studied the Swedish model.
Yet as widely cited as it is, critics both in Sweden and England query the effectiveness of the system on which the UK government proposes to base its flagship education policy. Questions include whether key planks of the policy, such as the mechanism of increased choice, work as intended and whether academic results are in fact boosted.
But most agree that something needs to be done. The relatively poor performance of many western state education systems is underlined by the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development rankings of teenage aptitude, which show much of Europe slipping behind Asia-Pacific (see chart).
Even countries that do well in international tests have their own difficulties. Finland, which does not have free schools, boasts excellent results thanks to the high quality of its teachers, who provide support to pupils falling behind. But experts there worry that the system is not flexible enough to allow the brightest to perform to the best of their ability. In Asia, governments fear that in spite of good scores, pupils are spoon-fed and lack intellectual independence.
In England’s case, the motivation is a malaise common in many other western countries. A stubborn core of children leaves school with few or no qualifications, and problems with literacy and numeracy that provoke constant complaints from employers.
Michael Gove, the UK’s Conservative education secretary, believes radical action is needed. The previous Labour government attempted to inject more competition and choice into state schools by setting up academies – semi-independent institutions in deprived areas reporting to central government rather than local authorities. Mr Gove sees virtues in the model, to the point that England’s free schools are expected to be classed as academies. But while existing academies have enjoyed only patchy success in raising standards, in Sweden, Mr Gove argues, new providers have not only created schools with higher standards but also, thanks to the “virtuous dynamic” of competition, helped spur existing schools to “raise their game”. Likewise under the English proposals, if a fully independent state-funded private school opens down the road, the local authority must raise standards at its existing institution or face losing pupils and the funding that follows them.
. . .
The central question for Mr Gove is whether free schools will cure England’s educational ills. In the eyes of the education magnates who run Sweden’s commercial free-school chains that dominate the sector, they are agents of revolution that have boosted standards by injecting competition into an inert and rigid system. Their number continues to grow. They now account for just over 40 per cent of the 945 upper secondary schools, which teach 16 to 19-year-olds. Moreover, 677 of the 4,755 schools teaching younger pupils are free.
“We do leave a lot of schools in the dust,” says Barbara Bergstrom, founder and owner of International English Schools, whose selling point is that it offers half its teaching in English. “But we also provide competition. The other schools have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”
Her experience also rebuts the argument that setting up hundreds of state-funded schools – Mr Gove’s ambition – is an unrealistically expensive proposition given high public debt. New free schools in Sweden do not enjoy additional capital funding on top of the usual per-pupil cash that all schools receive. The first of Ms Bergstrom’s 14 schools was set up “on a shoestring”, relying on goodwill such as donations of equipment.
Yet although Swedish free schools achieve on average better results than state-run rivals, problems remain. Asked how one runs an excellent school system, Per Thullberg, head of the Swedish government’s agency for education, says bluntly: “We can’t give the world good examples.”
His scepticism is supported by recent results. Since free schools were set up, pupil performance across the Swedish system has declined in comparison with international peers.
Jan-Eric Gustafsson of Gothenburg university adds that, since the 1990s, there has also been a “steep decline” in attainment compared with previous generations of Swedes. In addition, according to Mr Thullberg, free schools do no better than others in academic tests, after allowing for the fact that families choosing them tend to be more highly educated.
Even Bertil Ostberg, schools minister in the ruling centre-right coalition and a pioneer of free schools, is sceptical. He says that in the 1990s, reformers hoped that through “competition over quality, all schools should become better”. He concludes: “I wouldn’t say that this has failed but maybe some expectations were too high that this would change the system as a whole.”
Another senior politician, despite supporting the establishment of free schools and still advocating them, blames their unspectacular results on a misconceived reaction against authoritarian teaching styles. The result was “very fluffy objectives”, such as making each student responsible for their own learning with the teacher as “coach”, which handicapped less able pupils.
Mikael Lindahl, an economist at Stockholm University, says the free market model has not fully worked because it has been difficult to implement an essential element of competition – closing unwanted schools.
According to Samuel Huhta, the state-run school he heads in a suburb of Stockholm has capacity for 600 pupils and used to have that number on its rolls. However, because of competition from local free schools, now “we’ve got about half of that”. Three years ago, he says, the city council earmarked 10 out of 140 schools, including his own, for closure because of falling pupil numbers. However, parental pressure and media opposition ensured that none were shut.
Mr Gove acknowledges Sweden’s difficulties in closing schools. His solution is to make it easier for parents to take over old ones.
Critics are unimpressed. John Dunford, of the Association of School and College Leaders, warns that the “very mixed” evidence from Sweden on whether free schools boost standards makes it “like an act of faith by the government to introduce them here”.
In Sweden advocates of free schools, such as Mats Pertoft, Green party education spokesman, acknowledge that that they have not markedly improved results. But, for him, this was never the point – choice was. In the 1980s the few schools that offered an alternative to the Swedish norm, such as Waldorf schools – which emphasise creativity and individualism and where Mr Pertoft trained as a teacher – struggled financially because of meagre state support. As evidence that families are now more able to choose what they want, he cites official figures showing that more than 80 per cent of children are happy at school.
Fourteen-year-old Michael Haglund exemplifies how parents have taken advantage of choice. Michael, whose parents chose the English spelling rather than the Swedish Mikael “to make it easier” for him overseas, says he joined the IES school in Täby, north of Stockholm, because “we thought I’d get English for free”.
. . .
England, however, will have no direct counterpart to IES, since current Tory plans forbid commercially run free schools. Mr Gove envisages that, instead, local parents and teachers, often supported by education charities, will set up schools.
This was not primarily the case in Sweden. Mr Ostberg says: “In the 1990s many people thought that free schools would be founded by teachers, head teachers and parents, and we see now there are big companies that run these schools.” He concludes: “If you want independent schools, it’s necessary that you have companies that can have profits.” Looking back, it was “naive to think” individual teacher and parent-run schools would account for “a big part of the sector”. Advocates for profit-making chains say they are also more likely to have the capital to be able to set up schools, since in England central government capital grants will be scarce because of high public debt.
Swedish experts suggest local parents and teachers were also deterred from setting up free schools because of the time required. Sceptics say the same could happen in England but, in Yorkshire, Mrs Surman plays the criticism down. The parents’ group to which she belongs that is working to set up its own school is using Serco, a specialist in outsourced services, for complex tasks it cannot perform itself. It has also spread the workload among activists and friends – relying on supportive architects, for example, for technical work on building plans.
Alliance members will serve as trustees and governors but, says Mrs Surman, “when the school’s set up we’ll be able to step back a little bit and leave it to the professionals like the head teacher”.
CHANGES TO THE SYSTEM
The problem with prising off the hand of state
If there is one public service reform that would define David Cameron’s first term as prime minister, it is prising open Britain’s education system to create “free schools”, writes Alex Barker.
The “supply side revolution” seeks to remove the “dead hand” of state control, so that good state-funded school places are created where parents demand them – in some cases by parents running schools themselves. Competition between schools is intended to drive up standards. “Nothing else will do,” Mr Cameron said in January. “We need big change in the way we do education in our country.”
But to achieve this, senior Conservative members of the coalition with the Liberal Democrats know they will have to take a wrecking ball to the education establishment, breaking the grip of local government. This will require tough new laws, tight cost control and a new management superstructure.
“For these schools to get off the ground we now need a clear and simple application process backed by new planning legislation which allows the hundreds of parents and teachers we are working with to turn their vision into a reality,” says Rachel Wolf, a former adviser to Michael Gove, the education secretary, who set up the New Schools Network, a think-tank.
But bypassing local authorities may prove harder than it seems. The Labour government’s approach of winning the support of local councillors – be it through arm-twisting or offers of school building funds – was effective only in patches. But there appeared to be little alternative. “You can’t short-circuit planning process without triggering judicial reviews galore,” says one Whitehall veteran.
It will also be a financial challenge. Mr Gove’s team is still working on a funding formula that will take into account the fact that some schools will have a state-provided site and others will need to buy and develop a site themselves. If new providers are unable to attract private financing the education department will need to offer state guarantees or lend to them directly.
A school regime reliant on competition also requires spare places: children must be able to move to good schools. The Tories’ pre-election plans envisaged providing 220,000 new places over nine years. They also need a way to manage schools that lose students in the new competitive environment, given parental opposition to closures.
This is a task made harder by the need to cut both the education budget and meet a Con-Lib coalition agreement for a “pupil premium” of up to £2.5bn ($3.6bn, €2.9bn) for children from poor backgrounds. The premium would pay more to schools that accepted poorer children.