Made in Sweden: the new Tory education revolution

Fraser Nelson reports on the radical Swedish system of independent state schools, financed by vouchers, that has transformed the country’s education performance and is now inspiring the Conservative party’s dramatic blueprint for British schools: to set them free

27 February 2008

12:00 AM

27 February 2008

12:00 AM

Fraser Nelson reports on the radical Swedish system of independent state schools, financed by vouchers, that has transformed the country’s education performance and is now inspiring the Conservative party’s dramatic blueprint for British schools: to set them free

This summer, at least 25,000 children will drop out of English schools without a single qualification to show for their years of compulsory education. Some 240,000 will graduate from primary school unable to read or write properly. By autumn, some 250 schools judged to be failing will welcome an intake of new pupils. Youth unemployment will probably hit an 11-year high. It will, tragically, be just another year in one of the world’s highest-funded education systems.

Two strategies are available to David Cameron in addressing this scandal, should he get to No. 10. He could perform his own surgery on the comprehensive system pretending, as all prime ministers pretend, that he can actually control it. The Local Education Authorities, with whom the power rests, would almost certainly ignore him, as they did Tony Blair. But the second policy would be a new one. He would invite anyone to set up a new state school, run it independently of government, and receive a sum likely to be more than £6,000 a pupil.

He would, in short, seek to bring the Swedish education revolution to Britain. When Mr Cameron first promised to do this at the Tory conference in Blackpool (along with Wisconsin-style welfare reform), it sounded a rather abstract idea, the stuff of think-tank seminars rather than everyday life. Yet in the last five months Michael Gove, the shadow schools secretary, has been carefully designing a blueprint which would enable the establishment of a new breed of local independent schools, funded by the state but not run by it. It is potentially a plan of huge significance.

The most profound social revolutions can start from seemingly trivial or technical changes to the law. When this voucher system was introduced in Sweden in 1992, not even the policy’s architects took it that seriously. ‘It had been in the manifesto since the 1970s,’ says Anders Hultin, who helped put it into practice 16 years ago. ‘I remember the deputy education minister saying to me, “This is tokenistic, nothing will come of it.” Then, to our surprise, we had all these groups saying they’d like to set up schools.’

Today one in every eight schools in Sweden is a so-called ‘free school’ — some 900 already, with a further 1,550 applications granted last year. That said, Hultin also points out that most of these applications do not result in new schools. ‘Many applications are by parents wanting to pressure a council which is threatening to close down a local school,’ he says. So of course, if the council backs down, the application is unnecessary. This tactic is hard to comprehend in Britain. Swedish parents don’t protest against school closures — they simply apply to open a rival school. This prevents councils from amalgamating good small schools into ever-larger educational warehouses.

Part of the Conservatives’ problem in selling the policy is trying to get across the idea of a system where pupils choose schools, and not vice versa. Where parents on council estates are inundated with leaflets from schools competing to educate their child. And where fee-charging private schools might revert to the purpose they served before the comprehensive era: social clubs for the richest.

The first question you might ask is: how would people find the buildings? This question takes as its premise the Grange Hill model of a secondary which has, alas, become the norm in England. The average English school here now has a roll of a thousand pupils — whereas the new breed of Swedish schools averages just 180 pupils. So new schools can, and usually do, open in a former office.


Per Ledin, head of Kunskapsskolan group, which owns 25 schools, explained the process to me. ‘Most office buildings are constructed in a way that it’s no big deal to tear down a wall and make a classroom.’ But don’t the council schools put up a fight against their new competition? ‘Of course,’ he shrugs. ‘They say, “We already have 500 surplus school places, so please, no more misery.” But it doesn’t work. The 1992 Act says new schools can only be blocked on very specific grounds.’

This is the secret to the system’s success (which the Tories would replicate): a central body granting planning and financial permission. New schools cannot be blackballed by jealous local authorities as they are in Britain. Mr Blair could only look on and weep last year when councillors in the deprived borough of Tower Hamlets rejected Goldman Sachs’s offer to open a city academy. Even now Lord Adonis, the schools minister, is being dragged into the High Court by groups trying to stop the government opening new schools.

The second charge is that this funding system creates educational apartheid. If money follows pupils, won’t a socially damaging segregation between the best and worst schools be a natural consequence? Were it not for the evidence of the Swedish model, it would be easy to imagine any such proposal being still-born in this country. But there is now a mass of academic studies — one surveying 28,000 pupils — showing that such fears are unjustified. In education, a rising tide really does lift all boats. The older schools improve as they are galvanised by the pressure of the new: shape up, or lose pupils and money. It works.

What is perhaps most surprising about these new schools is their Spartan appearance. In the south of Stockholm I visited Enskede School, which could not strike a greater contrast with the flagship city academies I have been shown around in England. There are no trophy buildings, interactive whiteboards or other gizmos. There is an Ikea-style simplicity at work. The classrooms have tables and chairs, but not much else. Playgrounds are converted car parks. But no one seems to mind.

‘There is a trade-off,’ says Ledin. ‘If we can’t find a school next to a playground, we make a deal with a nearby sports centre to use its facilities. If parents find that unacceptable, they don’t send their children to our schools. Simple.’ Kunskapsskolan’s speciality is what it calls personalised education. Each child starts the day with a tutor, and is set an individual timetable. Other schools offer a more traditional approach. This array of competing pedagogical styles is the main fruit of the Swedish approach.

In addition to the usual religious schools there are primaries offering teaching methods like Montessori, Steiner Waldorf and Reggio Emilia — names familiar only in the posher suburbs of England, but routine fare on the menu served to the working-class parents of Sweden. Nor do such schools chase the rich. The third-highest concentration of voucher schools in Sweden is in Älvkarleby, a mainly rural working-class community dependent on a paper mill.

They are directed there by the invisible hand. Schools do best where the concentration of teachable children is highest, and the discontent with old schools the greatest. These are the simple laws of the market. And they would hold good for a Britain where at least 100,000 parents were denied their first choice of secondary school last year.

The main problems have come from controversy over religious schools. Christian headmasters end up in the newspapers for saying homosexuality is a sin, and the head of a Muslim free school was exposed by a television documentary for beating children. Yet after investigations, no school has yet been closed down. The overall success of this radical policy is illustrated by the fact that every party in parliament now supports using the voucher system — except the former communist party.

Yet there is one pa
rt of the Swedish system which is too openly capitalist even for the Tories: allowing schools to make a profit. In the Prime Minister’s Office in Stockholm’s old town, Mikael Sandström, a state secretary for the Moderate party administration, explains why the Tories are wrong. ‘If you’re a not-for-profit school, then the longer the waiting list the better,’ he says. ‘It’s a lot of trouble to expand, so they don’t. Also, profit-making schools have been shown to have less social segregation.’ And then he says something one would be surprised to hear in the White House, let alone the Rosenbad in Stockholm. ‘The question for me is whether we should abolish non-profit-making schools,’ Sandström says. I am not at all sure he was joking.

I visited another school which illustrates Sandström’s point. Engelska Skolan, which teaches primary children in English, had two founders who disagreed whether to seek profit. They went their separate ways. The original school still stands, on its own in a trust, six applicants for every place. The profit-making version is now a chain of eight English-speaking schools. If the waiting list grows big enough, they open another one.

But the Tories’ reluctance to allow profit-making (at this stage, anyway) by no means dooms its strategy. A Cameron government would pay the up-front cost of fitting out a new school in some cases — an offer not made in Sweden. And if the voucher value rises to £10,000 a pupil, as it will for children from poorer families, then new schools can be assured a place in the market. British social entrepreneur groups such as the pioneering New Model School and Absolute Return for Kids (Ark), which runs seven city academies, would be sure to put forward their plans.

Mr Gove’s new schools would probably offer different exams to the fast-devaluing crop of GCSEs and A-levels. As an alternative, the International GCSE could be taught, the International Baccalaureate — or the new Cambridge Pre-U exam being launched this autumn. All this would open up a more fundamental debate: should schools impart knowledge, or teach skills? At present, this is a debate that obsesses politicians in England — and one which Mr Ledin considers hilarious. ‘No one person has the right idea on education. Why not let schools take different approaches, and let parents choose?’

The Prime Minister is known to take a dim view of all this. Choice, he argues, means the maintenance of surplus places which he equates with waste. Yet the irony is that his profligate spending has made the Tory voucher scheme possible: education spending is so high that funding per pupil is now sufficient to make it desirable to set up a school. And there are plenty of Blairite ministers who privately concede that Mr Cameron is right. ‘It’s exactly the right idea,’ a Cabinet member told me recently. ‘Our problem is that we have too many “top-down” people in the Labour party. They have won.’

Tellingly, Professor Julian Le Grand, a former senior adviser to Mr Blair, is helping develop a voucher system for deprived children in conjunction with Policy Exchange, the Cameroons’ favourite think-tank. Its report is likely to be lapped up by Mr Gove. ‘Labour has always shown interest in this. But it’s the Conservatives who have really jumped on it,’ says Professor Le Grand. And does it surprise him that it’s the Right that has picked this up and run with it? ‘My aim is to provide a more effective, efficient school system regardless of which political party picks it up.’

There is a striking convergence of ideology around the case for school liberalisation. It was an idea first expressed by Milton Friedman in 1955 — and yet the Tories have adopted their system not from one of the many American states which have voucher schools but from Sweden, perhaps the most socialistic country in the free world. The policy should resolve the Tory party’s historic agony over grammar schools, being (potentially) a more effective, flexible and dynamic means of promoting social mobility than the old tripartite system of academic selection. The Liberal Democrats have also embraced the choice agenda for education, and are competing with the Tories to see whose voucher would be worth most.

And for Mr Cameron, it is a substantial answer to claims that he has no ideas. Here is a policy so radical and substantial that people like Professor Le Grand are working on its finer details. The test will be whether he can convey to Labour voters that he now represents the best hope for delivering true social justice in education. He has, at least, one priceless advantage, which may yet prove the salvation of education in England: he does not have the Labour party holding him back.

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Show comments
  • cuffleyburgers

    It is the aim of all Prime Ministers of this country to be the new Thatcher.

    By smashing the civil service and teachers’ unions stranglehold on education Mr Cameron could achieve that.

    In any case he may be able to achieve a paradigm shift in thinking on this, and wrong-foot labour spectacularly.

    This is fantastic stuff.

  • Nick Kaplan

    The Voucher system is a fantastic idea as highlighted by your brilliantly researched article, this system has not just worked spectacularly in Sweden but in the US as well, and anything advocated by Friedman is certainly worthy of deep consideration. It is a shame that it has taken the Tories so long to work up the courage to introduce such a proposal, I believe Michael Portillo at one stage proposed it to Thatcher who told him not to be so immature, that the public would never accept such a policy, sadly she was, as usual, probably right. However, as you mention Cameron now has a real chance with this idea, if he makes sure to emphasize Labour’s drastic failing in terms of school funding and the lack of return for that money, he can really push the argument that radical reform is needed. One can only hope all will go well, and then on to vouchers in health care!

  • CharlieRay15

    cuffley is right – this is really dynamite acting against one of the worst special interest groups remaining in Britain. It would destroy the arrant nonsense that one size fits hall for all children at last.

  • Nigel Bradshaw

    Glad Fraser Nelson has followed up my lead (my comment to coffee house some months ago) on Sweden’s “free schools”. How about another on Sweden’s inheritance tax (there isn’t any), emphasis on local income tax (relatively few Swedes pay federal income tax to central government, limiting any expansionary tendencies), and charging at all points of entry into its national health system while also allowing Swedes direct access to private doctors for which local authorities have to cover part of the cost.

  • David Lindsay

    No one who doesn’t read this and few other right-wing blogs has ever heard of it. Or ever will her of it. This is about getting out the core of the core Tory vote, a perceived need which in itself speaks volumes. When this and the Wisconsin-style welfare scheme are denounced in the Guardian and on the BBC, then I will believe that they really exist at all.

  • redsq01

    The key is for the taxpayer to fund the individual – ie. the customer of eductional services not the supplier

  • Cogito Ergosum

    So 25.000 out of 600,000 thousand children each year leave without the good paperwork that is “proof” of a good education. This is about 4% of the total, roughly corresponding to those who are two standard deviations below average ability.

    This is entirely to be expected, and no reorganisation of education will make any serious difference. People are born with a level of ability; education can make the best of that ability but cannot implant it where it is lacking.

    What this country does need is schools that cater for defined bands of ability. Midstream schools should not be expected to cater for the very bright or the very dull.

  • John Fitzgerald

    This will only work if there is wholesale reform of the planning system. It is extremely difficult to get planning permisison for change of use. Local authoritis can easily prevent offices or commercial buildings being converted to alternative uses by refusing permission on the grounds of reduction of employment space, and they frequently do.

  • Roderick Corrie

    I understand all this but how does Sweden manage its underclass. What happens to the children of people who will not or cannot engage enough to make any choice?

  • Marc Silver

    If I didn’t believe in a God before, I can now. Some kind of divine Providence is intervening in British history so save the Nation from cultural suicide. Now citizens who admire and love the vital historic values of your country will be enabled to build their own schols and provide a firm foundation of creative, altruistic thinking, the wise and dynamic optimism that made Britain great from the beginning. Providing individual family choice in British education will also force those egoistic leftist demigods in Academia and Media Land to knuckle under to the public will. With decision making restored to the tax payers, Britain will regain the respect of the Western world. Thank heaven, Churchhill still lives–he’s just been on holiday in Sweden!

  • Carl Larson

    Great article. You forgot to mention that the Swedish social democrats hate the whole thing-but have been unable to block it because the parental support it gets.

  • David Lindsay

    “A system where pupils choose schools, and not vice versa”? Like we’ve never heard that one before! And as for “a striking convergence of ideology around the case for school liberalisation”, all that that means is that no other view ever enters the single shared brain cell of the Westminster Village think-tank set.

    Who, of course, will dream up anything – ANYTHING – other than the return of the grammar schools, only in the absence of which were they themselves admitted to university.

  • Buckinghamshire Tory

    “I understand all this but how does Sweden manage its underclass.”

    Much like we do it here in Britain, through a welfare state that pays people tosit around doing nothing.
    The only real difference is what one chose to call it. Here we call it “the welfare state”, in Sweden it is called “folkehemmet”.

  • kiffa

    I am a school governor at a leafy lane primary school who daily thanks God that we can afford school fees, whilst been driven to apoplexy at how the state system fails children and the injustice of it all. The stalinist centralised control has to be seen to be believed. Teachers are not professionals but aparatchiks concerned with Cover Your A… paper trails, who despite paying lip service to the ‘teacher parent partnership’ have their backs to the children and parents and focus on the LEA who are their source of income and advancement. The parents know they have no say, so don’t even bother. They tell me wistfully that what they really want, is to know through weekly marked spelling and maths tests, how their children are doing. What a terrible wish. It’s enough to make you weep. ‘Special needs’ are pushed – because that is what is getting the funding! The ethos is defensive and obsessed about hurting anyone’s feelings (to justify the lack of aspiration). The children are tested endlessly and minutely, to see if they are ‘progressing’. But if the starting point is low (see above), to what point? Only to confirm that the teachers are teaching! The information does not appear to be shared with parents in any meaningful way. ‘Intelligent’ and ‘ability’ are not words that are used. When my son moved to his prep school, the first thing that happened is that he was assessed – for ability. Which identified that he was working below his potential, and to his great and enormous shock was leaned on to get there. The injustice of this is huge – why do people have to PAY for such a sensible attitude, which grants such advantage in life? When in governor’s meetings I speak of global skills shortages and the moral duty of the staff to push their children to their greatest effort possible, the pained looks appear to convey that the outside world and what they do have no links. They seemed unconcerned that 10 and 11 year olds were unable (despite trying very hard) to work out 2/3rds of 90. You see, they had only been working on halving things…
    We need to get the hands of the left wing ideologues off the throats of our schools. I would like a political party – anyone – who will indicate that they are prepared to do this. The trouble is, the average parent doesn’t understand this problem, that it is not money or privilege that makes private schools better, but their independence. And the fact that funding accompanies the child. Those two reforms would change our state system within a term.

  • Fraser Nelson

    So many brilliant points above. David – yes, you’re right. A handful of people know about this policy: Cameron has a real challenge popularising it. John: abs right, this system would live or die by proper regulation. LAs use planning to blackball new schools right now and protect their monopoly. Roderick, demand for choice is at its most acute for parents desperate for their kids to get out of the ghetto. The Botkyrka suburb of Stockholm, which is top for immigration and drug abuse, has the 3rd-highest concentration of voucher schools. Demand is highest where there is the highest concentration of kids to teach: the invisible hand steers voucher schools to where they are most needed. The voucher system smashes the most pernicious force at work in state-run education: the soft bigotry of low expectations for those in sink estates. David, I attribute the convergence of opinion to the mound of empirical evidence showing vouchers work.

  • Neil Rose

    I think the point made by John Fitzgerald regarding the planning system being the real problem here. I fear the a future Cameron government would have to address the planning laws for new schools as well as legislation to allow for Vouchers. There is one other point, and that one has to congratulate Labour for raising the amounts of money spent per child that makes such a consideration a real possibility. When public spending on education was derisory vouchers were clearly a non-starter. Only Brown’s dirigiste tendencies hold them back from their being applied now.

  • kiffa

    Just one other point that I would like to make: the children that are being comprehensively failed by the state system, are not the very bright ones. They are fine whatever school system they find themselves in. Nor is it the ‘special needs’, who let’s face it are not academic and would never progress to skilled jobs anyway. The children being terribly failed, are the borderline ability, the mid-range. They, the main body of the class, are the ones who precisely need independent school-type pushing, so that they learn persistent, determined work habits, and attain what they are capable albeit only through hard work. Why did the governor know of research that provided evidence that borderline children do better at grammar schools than at comprehensives, but the teachers didn’t? Because the governor reads the Torygraph which reported this body of research, and the teachers didn’t. However, they disagreed that the borderline children should for their own good futures be worked very hard and encouraged to pass the grammar school test, arguing that ‘they might fail’ and grammar school would ‘stress’ them… Why is this (so many children who could make the grade if they were made to work hard, failing) not a national scandal? Parents believe this ‘stress’ argument readily and support the teachers. You might as well push water uphill.
    So my third reform would be: schools could teach whatever they want however they want, but all pupils write a national exam (along the lines of Common Entrance)at 11, from which results the secondary school heads freely select their pupils. That would sort out the cant!

  • Dean Rodrigues

    this is without doubt one of the best articles I have read in the last year. The thought of voting Conservative is not something I like to think about, but if they propose this alongside slashing inheritance tax, I may well be convinced.

    The whole education system needs uprooting, and this method looks perfect.

  • Mrs Mandy Housby

    As Chair of Governors for a Primary School in Wiltshire. I would welcome any change that gives the schools choices about how and where the money they receive can be spent, instead of all these initiatives that are so restrictive, and of course need to be implemented with no extra money. Every child matters comes to mind.Its a great saying, So longs as the children don’t require money to matter.

  • dexey

    As a primary school teacher I agree with everything that kiffa, the governor, says. I wonder why, with the power of being the employer, doesn’t he or she do something about it. I’d love to not have to teach the literacy hour and the numeracy hour. To go back to exploring the avenues that the children would lead the lesson down but the middle class want to see results. Plenty of testing is the answer.
    Kiffa is just another interfering middle class moaner with time on their hands I fear.

  • kiffa

    Dexey blaming everything on the middle classes is a standard left wing cop out which the present government is indulging in big time at the moment. The middle classes have been recognised since the days of Louis XIV as being the backbone of a country, and [their values] should be supported, not vilified. The middle classes have nothing to do with WHO devises and implements the national curriculum; the middle classes tend to vote with their cheque books and remove their darlings to the independent sector. Got that word? INDEPENDENT. The testing that you so hate, is not the fault of the ‘middle classes’ but is in fact a perversion of Mrs Thatcher’s vision (of the very weekly maths and spelling tests that my parents would like), by the left wing twits (change the vowel), the WHO in the previous sentence, to consolidate their ideological control of the state sector.
    I would love you to teach in anyway you like. As long as the effectiveness of your methods stands up to results in a national examination taken at 11 (from which secondary schools should select their pupils). If they didn’t, you would either have to change, or teach less pupils as parents chose a more effective primary school that focussed on the basics. Cuts the cackle perfectly, and concentrates the mind. Works brilliantly for the INDEPENDENT sector, who gain or lose pupils by their results and their reputation. Why can’t this eminently sensible solution, be available to all? I would prefer not to pay to have my kids educated properly. ‘Every child matters’ is a typically meaningless, pointless piece of ideological drivel. So is celebrating Diwali, visiting the local mosque and ‘learning about history’ by making elizabethan slippers, all of which time wasting social engineering put state children further and further behind their private school counterparts. ‘Money and privilege’ don’t account for the difference. Effective discipline, true attention through small classes and higher teacher pupil ratios and concentrating on the basics do.

  • Iftikhar Ahmad


    There are hundreds of state schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. In my opinion, all such schools may be designated as Muslim community schools.

  • John W

    I am a huge proponent of this policy and believe if implemented, and coupled with good welfare reform, would transform our society over the course of a decade and usher in a new era in our social history.

    But this article is absolutely woeful. It lacks any meaningful insight fails to get to the heart of the policy itself – responsibility. And through it’s shoddy arguments actually hands ammunition to those who willfully misconstrue the policy and its potential outcomes.

    Fraser, you plunge yet lower in my once high estimations with such persistent second rate writing.

  • Stephen Barr

    As a school governor, this article has filled me with hope, and also a prayer that the Tories don’t back away from implementing this. Some of the most powerful and reactionary naysayers in the country (especially the teaching unions and the education authourites) will throw everything they can against this proposition.

    Many on the ground though, including the many amazing teachers who struggle every day to educate our children, despite everything put in their way to make that more difficult, along with governing bodies and parents will applaud any Governement that brings this off.

    Most importantly, a whole generation of schoolchildren, currently condemned to an unimaginative, undemanding and failed system, will be given the opportunity to be the best they can be.

    This is important guys, so please don’t fluff it.