The Tories plans for free schools have little to do with the Swedish model


When Lord Adonis was Schools minister (how we miss him) he praised the Swedish model of education and equated the Blair government’s academy and trust schools initiatives with what has happened in Sweden.

 Indeed, Tony Blair in his forward to an education white paper, which laid the foundations for the subsequent Education Act, also drew parallels with the Swedish model.

 The Tories too have waxed eloquent about the Swedish and US Charter models seeing these ‘free’schools’ as the future. Indeed not much separates the Shadow Education Secretary’s position from that of Lord Adonis, when he was schools Minister.

 However, Lord Adonis and Michael Gove in seeking to equate the Swedish education model with that in the UK are less than totally persuasive. Since 1992, parents in Sweden have been allowed to choose their children’s school. Municipalities were required to fund approved independent schools at 85 per cent of the per-student cost of public schools. A national agency was given the responsibility for approving new independent schools. To receive government funding, independent schools had to forgo tuition charges, meet established educational standards, and admit students without regard to ability, religion or ethnicity. Now almost anyone can set up a school and receive public funding. Far from undermining the public [state] schools in Sweden competition from new independent schools has led to an improvement in the public schools. As in other markets for goods and services, greater competition is a key driver in improving the quality of service to the consumer. Since when has the UK government forced local authorities (as they do in Sweden) to fund pupils in independent schools if that is their wish? That is the essential and manifest difference between the two systems. Seventy five percent of the Swedish free schools are profit making, yet the Tories would not allow their model of free schools, call it Swedish ‘lite’, to be profit making. But self-evidently its not much good having a model if you deny it the fuel to operate.

Anders Hultin, a former adviser to the Swedish government and now Chief Executive of GEMS Education, spelt it out in the Daily Telegraph this week. He said that the Swedish model would not exist without the acceptance of profit-making organisations, and he should know (nor for that matter would the Charter Model, or certainly not on the current scale). He wrote that the reason that 75% of the Swedish free school are profit seeking is because schools that are paid per pupil tend to expand as fast as demand requires – if they are oversubscribed, they will open a sister school rather than build up waiting lists. But in order to expand, they need to have money. Indeed, without the profit element, research showed that most of Sweden’s new independent schools ‘would have been very small, and most would have had a religious purpose’.

In short, the Tories can’t seek to emulate a model, while removing the core ingredient of that models success.

It is also odd given the state of public finances that they choose to shut out a huge source of potential investment.

 Crucially, to make it worthwhile for private suppliers to set up state schools you need to make it attractive for them to set up chains of schools, to up scale success to generate economies of scale and a return so that they can invest in the future.

You cannot rely on the charitable activities of private companies to deliver systemic change, particularly in the current economic and financial environment. If you don’t have an attractive financial model, then providers will not engage. This also extends to the not for profit sector, perhaps paradoxically, because not for profit operators seek not just to recover costs but to make a surplus  so that they can invest in the future too . You don’t need the brains of an Archbishop to work this one out. Over, to the Tories.


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