Should English schools turn Swedish?

Our new government aims to transform the English education system by freeing more schools from public sector control, much like the system in Sweden. But how successful has the Swedish 'free schools' model really been? And can we improve on it over here? Simon Wilson reports.

The new British government has made a start implementing its 'free schools' policy. What will this mean for our education system? Simon Wilson reports.

What are the Lib-Cons doing?

They are cracking on with implementing Tory school reforms, which survived the coalition talks all but intact. First, the government announced this week that it will fast-track an Academies Bill through Parliament aimed at boosting the number of schools that operate outside local authority control. Under Labour, academies were largely focused on improving standards in the most difficult areas. In future, academies are more likely to be the highest-achieving schools, many in affluent areas. In time, however, the new education secretary, Michael Gove, wants to give every school in England (other parts of Britain run their own systems) the chance to opt out.

What's the timescale?

Schools that are assessed as outstanding about one in five secondary schools will be able to apply for fast-tracking to academy status by the autumn. And under the policy of supporting "free schools", state-funded academies can be set up by parents or other groups, such as charities or private firms, without the need to consult the local authority. Here the Tories, led by Gove, have been inspired by the example of Sweden, which introduced similar reforms in 1992. A free school is set up and run independently of the government, with its own ethos and identity. However, it is still funded by the state using a voucher system, according to the number of pupils it can attract.

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Why would this improve the system?

The idea is that increased choice and competition will force up standards in all schools, not just in the free schools and academies. Here, the evidence from Sweden's experience is mixed and contentious. There are now 1,063 free schools in Sweden (18.6% of the total), educating 10% of all pupils. At the upper school level (16- to 19-year-olds) free schools account for 40% of the total. Measured by parental satisfaction, these schools are undoubtedly a success: 90% of parents approve of the education on offer. There is also some evidence that the great fear of free-schools critics that they will cause other local schools to suffer by comparison is unfounded.

How so?

In 2006, a major review by the Swedish education agency found that in districts where more than 10% of pupils went to free schools, increased competition raised standards in both free and state sectors. On the other hand, researchers also found that the competition effect declined over time. And 15 years on, even some early pioneers of the free-school movement are sceptical as to its overall effectiveness. Pupil performance across the Swedish system has declined in comparison with international peers. Bertil Ostberg, schools minister in the ruling centre-right coalition, told the FT recently that in the 1990s reformers hoped that through competition all schools would become better. "I wouldn't say that this has failed. But maybe some expectations were too high that this would change the system as a whole."

What can the Tories learn from this?

To be fair, Gove does not seem to view the Swedish model as a panacea for the ills of England's system. The free-market model has not fully worked there because it has proved tough to implement an essential element of competition: closing poor schools. In the face of parental pressure and media opposition, this has proved very hard to do, and Gove's plans are already facing strong opposition from teachers' unions. His solution is to make it easier for parents to take over existing schools. But again, there's a lesson from Sweden. Gove and the Tories envisage that local parents and education charities will set up schools, and their plans forbid profit-making companies from running them. Ostberg says that this was the initial vision in Sweden too, but it proved unrealistic and naive. Parents want good schools, but on the whole they don't want to run them; enterprises with capital, economies of scale and brand awareness have proved essential.

Will that happen here?

It may have to. Critics on the liberal centre-right (exemplified by a Times leading article this week) argue that the profit motive is important because it drives expansion, and have urged the Tories to reconsider. Swedish free schools (and similar US charter schools) run by profit-making companies do not charge fees, but are still purely state-funded independents, receiving funds according to the number of pupils they can attract.

However, where companies are allowed to make a profit, oversubscribed schools have a natural incentive to open a sister school, rather than build up a waiting list. Moreover, given the constraints on public spending it is unlikely that the UK government will provide start-up capital. So a non-profit policy could prove ineffective in terms of attracting companies to run schools.

Who will fund the academies?

In Sweden, free schools are allowed to make a profit, though they do not charge fees. Almost 30% are owned and run by education firms, such as Kunskapsskolan. It runs a chain of 32 schools, and has plans to sponsor two academies in England, in Richmond (in Surrey) and in Suffolk. Edison, the largest provider of state-funded private schools in America, is keen to enter the British market. GEMS, a company based in the United Arab Emirates, which already runs 12 private schools in Britain, is also developing plans to run state-financed free schools. "We are exploring opportunities right now, supporting groups of parents," they told The Guardian.

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.