HAS THE SWEDISH FREE SCHOOLS MODEL TAKEN A KNOCK? HARDLY
But better schools regulation could help
Per Thulberg, Director General of the Swedish National Agency for Education, so the man who runs Sweden’s schools, caused a stir recently when he told the BBC “This competition between schools that was one of the reasons for introducing the new schools, has not led to better results,” He continued “The lesson is that it’s not easy to find a way to continue school improvement.” Bit of a blow then for free schools. Well, not really. A study by the University of Gothenburg compares Sweden’s education performance against other countries in international league tables. Sweden appears to be going downwards relative to others. However, when you look a little closer it’s less a question of Sweden falling back, and more a question of high achieving new entrants joining the tables and going straight into the top ten. These include, for the Pisa studies for instance, countries such as Hong Kong-China, Macao-China, Taiwan, and some of the new EU members from the East. Thulberg did, however, confirm that students in the new free schools have in general better standards, attributing this to their parents background. “They come from well-educated families,” he said. So he wants Swedish education to get back to the basics.
But are these free school actually being hijacked by well educated parents in a form of segregation? It is hard to find firm evidence. Swedish free schools are of course non-selective. So, forgive me for stating the obvious, schools can’t select pupils, nor parents, for that matter. And studies clearly indicate that the 1,000 or so free schools don’t and indeed cant cream skim the best pupils, having broadly similar socio-economic intakes, to neighbouring, non-free municipal schools. School choice reforms did not so much increase segregation based either on parental background or ethnicity, as alter its dynamic. As Civitas has pointed out, the boundaries between schools and between local neighborhoods in Sweden were lowered in the early 1990s and new suppliers of education were allowed into the sector. The result is that many pupils, previously placed out in the suburbs, chose to make their way into schools resulting in a mix of pupils that was more representative of the whole Swedish society. Hence, segregation along ethnic lines has in fact decreased in Sweden, through their school choice reforms, which is a huge plus.
But what Thulberg presumably is referring to is that there may have been some increase in segregation along the lines of parental academic background. In other words, well-educated parents (regardless of ethnicity) are more likely to take advantage of the new set of choices available to their children and find them a school that offers them the best opportunities. Crucially, these non-selective free schools provide opportunities across the board. The fact that some parents do not take these opportunities is no argument for denying them to everyone. If a government provides welfare benefits to everyone who needs them, but some who need them choose not to use them or are not aware of their entitlements , this is no argument to stop benefits for everyone .The same applies in education. The system delivers equality of opportunity. Thulberg is essentially talking about parents with high expectations seeking the best for their children.
It is worth noting that here ‘middle class’ families already have access to the best schools in the world. What the best free schools will do is offer something closer to that choice to poor pupils as well. By enforcing the same rules as in Sweden, access to quality education can become a reality for all. It is interesting to note ,in this respect, that the free schools idea is seen as a threat by some, here, in the independent sector. Good state schools make the independent sector less attractive. As for getting back to basics, it is a gross and misleading over- simplification to suggest this is an attack on free schools, or indeed choice.
In fact the Gothenburg study on Sweden’s relative decline over twenty years, saw schools choice as just one, in basket of influencers and certainly not the main one. Other significant reasons identified included housing segregation, making schooling a ‘community matter’, (communities have not distributed resources efficiently-sounds familiar) special teaching groups, and what is termed ‘individualisation.’ The main explanation the report gives, for instance for the dwindling average performance in mathematics and natural science was ‘the increased use of independent learning and decreased teacher-led instruction’. Another key reason given was poor understanding and application of the National Curriculum. The report stated ‘ The current national curriculum, introduced in the 1990s, provides limited guidance on exactly what children need to learn and what methods teachers should use. While the original intention of this was to give teachers freedom to base their teaching entirely on what each unique situation calls for, it turns out that it has led to more time on their own for school children and less teacher-led instruction. The report shows that this has negatively affected children’s performance and has made support at home more critical to the children’s development.’ So the systems performance overall may have declined, relative to some other high achieving countries ,but not, of course, the performance of free schools within that system. There are plenty of evaluations that clearly demonstrate that schools in geographical areas where competition exists are performing better than schools in areas where there still is no competition. This hasn’t stopped Dr Sandra McNally and Dr Helena Holmlund from the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) arguing otherwise. In an article published last week they said the most recent studies of Swedish reforms found evidence of “only small positive effects”. They added: “Importing the Swedish model may not make very much difference to the UK’s status quo.” It is a claim that will be hotly contested.
Even Per Thulberg who started this debate off accepts that free schools perform better than municipal schools.
The CEP academics also claim that given we already have choice in our school system introduction of more choice will hardly make a difference. But a vast majority of our state schools including Academies do not have the level of autonomy enjoyed by ‘free schools’, and it is this freedom to manage themselves that is seen as the key driver to improve performance.
Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl (Stockholm University) found that an increase in the private-school share by 10 percentage points increases average pupil achievement by almost 1 percentile rank point. Another study indicates that student achievement in municipalities with a rising share of students in independent schools increase more than achievement in other municipalities so that the final grade in Maths, English and Swedish at age 16 consistently improved more where independent schools had been set up than elsewhere. And Åsa Ahlin of Uppsala University found that a ten per cent increase in the number of children attending free schools led to a five per cent increase in Mathematics performance across the area. So, increased competition is shown to have statistically significant positive effects on student performance in mathematics. And, of course, like Charter schools in the States, these schools are popular with the parents who use them, more so than municipal schools, with disadvantaged families and with minority groups.
The feeling in Sweden seems to be that Swedish schools generally need to be made more accountable and regulated better including, through independent inspection. Somewhat ironic that we are looking at their model for schools and they are looking at our own Ofsted which has come in for some recent criticism (See TES Leader two weeks ago). There are few influential calls for an end to schools choice in Sweden. More accountability, certainly, but less choice? Definitely not.
It is widely accepted now, in the UK, that one size fits all school model doesn’t work. There is no case that can be plausibly put either that because schools are funded by the taxpayers they have to run by the state. The state can commission and enable but does not need to be a provider, as successive UK Governments have long understood. It is understood too by politicians here, backed by research from the OECD, that genuinely autonomous schools tend to perform better, than others with less freedoms to manage their affairs. This was accepted by Lord Adonis to justify the launch of the massive Academies programme. Adonis said freedom for schools to manage their affairs was a “key principle” of government policy.
“That is why we have established 130 academies – which are independent state schools – and given all schools greater control of their budgets, staffing and management.” A Report by Professor Alan Smithers looked to the autonomy of schools in the independent sector in 2008 as an example for the state sector to help drive up standards. He said that the independent sectors autonomy meant decisions were made “closer to the teaching”. “The autonomy of the school is very effective in delivering high quality education,” he said “What we really need to do is make the shape of the system right, put in the money, then have the courage to step back and let teachers take the decisions. Smithers concluded “It gives an indication to the government as to how they can improve the quality of education in the state sector.”
Some choice is already in the system. The Tories want more choice. With greater freedoms. So do many parents, as the New Schools Network is finding out, as it is inundated with requests for information from parents fed up with whats on offer in their local areas and with centrally and locally driven prescriptions and the endless bureaucracy that is part and parcel of it. Certainly there are opponents of choice who offer a variety of arguments against it including, of course, the risk of segregation, lack of inclusivity, lack of accountability atomization of the system etc .But it is becoming harder to argue against the introduction of regulated, non-selective schools in disadvantaged areas that offer more powers to Heads, governors and teachers along with reduced red tape. The free schools idea is about empowerment of parents, schools and of teachers giving the latter back their profession. It could also embrace the idea of co-operative schools in which parents and teachers have a very direct stake.
The most important lesson from Sweden is that school choice has produced better education outcomes, not just for those attending the new independent schools but importantly also those attending any school in a district that contains independent schools. A 2003 study by Swedish economists Fredrik Bergström and Mikael Sandström and quoted by the Hoover Institute of Stanford University ‘found no indication that higher-income earners chose independent schools to a greater extent than low-income earners, no evidence that freedom of choice led to increased economic segregation, and nothing to indicate that independent schools have fewer special-needs students.’ Hence, it is likely that any possible alleged impact from segregation based on parental education will have been more than offset by other significant factors.