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.

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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.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated