Fraser Nelson

Responding to the opponents of “Swedish schools”

Responding to the opponents of “Swedish schools”
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Given how potentially transformative the Tory schools policy could be, it’s surprising it hasn’t attracted more enemies. But in school policy, silence is deceptive. The enemies of reform tend to operate under the radar. Local authorities, whose grip over state education is threatened, will lobby their local MP. It’s crucial to understand here that Tory councils are just as bad. They fought Kenneth Baker’s plans for direct grant (i.e. quasi-independent) schools with as much energy as Labour councils did. And already, you can hear Tory MPs voicing questions about the Gove “Swedish schools” policy – and they join a harder Labour critique. I thought I’d run through a few here.

1.    That Sweden is a tiny country with very different dynamics, and what works in Scandi wonderland won’t work in Sunderland. The Swedish school policy was carried out at a grassroots level, not a local or national level. The state simply gave communities the right to set up a new school with minimum restrictions – and, at the time, didn’t think anyone would really do it. The communities responded. There is no national template to fit one country or another, the only factor is how dissastified communities are with their school.

2.    Existing schools have a tough enough job as it is without losing pupils to new entrants. Yes, and we have to ask whose side the government should be on: that of the parents, or the local authorities who fear competition? The pupil-teacher ratio in England has remained broadly the same since 1979 – if new schools are set up then the smaller class sizes would be no bad thing.

3.    Unpopular schools would close. Yes, if parents judge them of inferior quality. We have to remember that schools in England are falling already. The number of pupils is falling (4.14m in 1997, 3.8m now) and the current bureaucratic system reduces the number of schools in line with this.

The cull of schools is exacerbated by a bureaucratic trend to shepherd kids into sprawing Grange Hill-style secondaries (average school roll has jumped from 861 to 974 under Labour), all the time keeping the pupil-teacher ratio around 16. This is not good for teachers, not good for schools, not good for the education sector in England in general. The Swedish system saw a proliferation of new schools, with perhaps a couple of hundred kids in them, multiplying job opportunities for teachers and choice for parents. If this were to happen in England the only people it would upset would be the bureaucratic planners.

Now, the next bit I’d like to take from Polly Toynbee’s article in yesterday’s Guardian. Labour hasn’t quite worked out how to attack Michael Gove’s ‘Swedish schools’ policy. So one should pay attention to her  on the subject because her critique is by far the most advanced.  

4.    “Their flagship plan to introduce private schools into the state system follows a scheme introduced by Swedish conservatives in the mid-1990s, allowing parents or private providers to start a school, commanding funding from the local authority – regardless of whether new places are required.”

Note this idea of whether “new places are required” – required by whom? UK demographics means fewer kids each year. Bureaucrats dislike opening new schools if there are places to fill in bad ones. The concept of places being “required” is responsibe for the school cull (which has been happening since the 1970. In 1979 there were 4,170 more primaries and 1,300 more secondaries than there are today). Anyway, back to Toynbee.

5.    “In Sweden small pockets of middle class schools sprang up, at high cost, breaking the even class mix in existing schools. When I interviewed the Swedish education minister, I found the current conservative government not keen to extend the scheme, regarding it as essentially irrelevant.”

This gives the impression that the Swedish “free schools” (as they are known) were a small middle-class experiment, now defunct.  In fact these independent schools are so popular that while they accounted for less than 1.5% of the sector in 1992 they now educate 9% of primary pupils and 17% of upper secondary schools. It is hard to see how such a share could be regarded as "essentially irrelevant". The sector is large, and growing. And, crucially, it is doing so with very little input from any minister. There is an independent licensing body which grants approvals, and hears (and usually dismisses) complaints from local authorities who fear competition. The Swedish definition of socialism is being on the side of the small people who want their kids educated well – as opposed to the government bureaucracy.

6. That the new schools have come “at high cost”. The schools were, at first, given 85% of what it cost local authorities to educate kids. Now it's the same - not a penny more. As the above graphs show in Britain, the state-run sector handles contraction very well. It’s being doing nothing else for at least three decades.

We’re in the lucky position with Sweden where we don’t need to rely on anecdotage or interviews. It’s paradise for academics who want to study the effect of school choice - years of data, hundreds of thousands of pupils whose cases we can examine. There are books and studies detailing how these new “free schools” tend to pop up where the quality of education was lowest (and, ergo, dissatisfaction was highest). As to who benefits, studies suggest that it’s the immigrants in Sweden – not the middle classes - who have fared the best.

So the Tories are very well prepared for a debate about education. The facts, figures, precedent and potential are all there. This at the centre of the social mobility debate, it’s the most radical policy David Cameron has and I hope it’s one that will be aired a lot more during the party conference season.

Written byFraser Nelson

Fraser Nelson is the editor of The Spectator. He is also a columnist with The Daily Telegraph, a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies.

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