Education Mar 9 2010

Swedish school reform comes under the spotlight

Swedish school reforms may not be all they are cracked up to be. According to the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE, pursuing the same policies over here might could disadvantage thousands of English school children. The Swedish reforms, on which the Conservative Party bases its ‘free schools’ policy, allow parents and other providers to set up independent schools with public money . But some of the existing Swedish providers argue that this only works because they are allowed to make a profit, something which is not currently permitted in the English school system.

And two weeks ago on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, Per Thulberg, the Director General of the Swedish National Agency for Education, admitted that, even with profit making schools, the programme hadn’t raised standards overall. Sweden is lower down international league tables than England, as Conservative education spokesman Michael Gove was forced to admit recently.Better results in the new independent schools were largely a result of the pupils in those schools coming from homes with better educated parents, a result of the social segregation that also accompanies the free schools experiment. An earlier report from the agency on the performance of independent schools between 1991 and 2004 also suggested that there was variation in quality between different types of indendent school and the whole experiment may not be cost effective.

Much of the debate about new free schools and the Swedish model will come down to cost . With limited public funds, setting up new schools will inevitably siphon off public money from existing schools. Advocates of the  pure market model of education predict that this will force less popular schools to close, ensuring an efficient use of resources all round.

The only trouble is that, as the Swedes have discovered,  the free school experiment has not been accompanied by closure of what they call ‘municipal’ schools. Closing a struggling school is often a slow and unpopular process as  parents fight to keep local schools open. But the education of childen in schools that are losing money, and undersubscribed due to the creation of extra places elsewhere, may be seriously compromised in the meantime.

This is why we should be very wary of the ‘market experiment’.

Children aren’t commodities to be traded . They are human beings with feelings, aspirations and self esteem and the effect of being educated in a school that is struggling, and demonised by members of it’s local community, shouldn’t be underestimated. Supporting existing schools, helping them to become better and more popular, would be cheaper, fairer and less divisive.




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