Anders Hultin, an architect of the Swedish government’s voucher system, says the Tories’ plan to emulate it will fail unless they encourage a new breed of education entrepreneurs
For us Swedes, it is gratifying to see David Cameron put our free schools model at the heart of his reform agenda. He has chosen well. In a few short years, the voucher system has transformed education in Sweden and led to the creation of almost a thousand new schools. But the Conservative leader has failed to grasp a key aspect of their success. To flourish, these schools must be allowed to make a profit.
This isn’t just one of a long list of pessimistic predictions — it’s the only crucial criticism; he can ignore the rest. The doubts I hear about school choice in England now are the same ones I heard when I helped draft the policy as an adviser in the Swedish education and science department in 1992. Who on earth, we were asked, would want to set up their own school? Surely low-income parents don’t want choice — they just want their local school to improve. Our political opponents thought the policy such a dud they didn’t even bother to attack it. Even we had our doubts. Our proposal was fairly simple: anyone could set up a school, and be paid the going rate (or, at the time, a bit less) that the state-run schools were receiving. But in our heart of hearts, we did not expect a rush of applicants. This is a symbolic policy, I was told by a colleague. It was in our manifesto, so we had to honour it.
Isn’t it strange how little faith government places in the people whose lives it seeks to organise? Once we put our ‘symbolic’ policy into practice, and handed power from government to communities, the effect was extraordinary.