Gordon Browns claim in the Guardian hard to justify


Facts tend to be crowded out in election campaigns, in favour of sweeping unsubstantiated head- line grabbing generalizations from rather too many politicians. In the States there is an independent organization Factcheck ( that checks the claims made by politicians  in their  electioneering, against facts and then holds them to account.

We  could benefit from the same here.

Gordon Brown in an interview with the Guardian claimed that ‘The Swedish free market school experiment has not been successful. The evidence of the Swedish equivalent of Ofsted is that it has led to lower standards and growing inequalities’ (12 April). This   cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. Sweden doesn’t actually have an equivalent agency to Ofsted, though ironically some Swedes want one to sharpen up schools accountability .Per Thulberg, Director General of the Swedish National Agency for Education, whom Brown is almost certainly referring to, heads  an agency that does not carry out the same tasks as Ofsted, and cannot therefore be regarded as its ‘equivalent’ . In any case Thulberg actually  agreed that Swedish free schools had probably helped raise standards, not to lower them, as claimed by the Prime Minister.  His quibble was over the reasons for this   improvement, which he thought was probably due to  pupil selection and segregation  ( though this is disputed by a number of studies which confirm that these schools are non selective).Thus  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 (free) 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.’

On performance measurement, a study by Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl (Stockholm University) found that an increase in the private-school share in Sweden 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. 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. A recent study by two economists, Anders Bohlmark and Mikael Lindahl (2008) found that private schools had improved performance, albeit not by a big margin but suggested this was because the entry of new private schools has not been followed by the closing down of poor public schools.  Hence, they concluded it might be that increasing shares of school budgets have been devoted to maintaining the operation of public schools of poor quality. What they didn’t find, and what Gordon Brown claims, is that these free schools have led to a drop in standards.

So,the clear conclusion from nearly all the available studies is precisely the opposite of that reached by the Prime Minister . That is that results have improved more in places with lots of new free schools—not only in those schools, but also in the state-run ones that had to raise their game in order to survive. And importantly this has been achieved without selection.( Its worth repeating that these free schools are not allowed by law to select pupils so cannot cream skim talent).

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