"Finland, which does not have free schools, boasts excellent results thanks to the high quality of its teachers, who provide support to pupils falling behind. But experts there worry that the system is not flexible enough to allow the brightest to perform to the best of their ability. In Asia, governments fear that in spite of good scores, pupils are spoon-fed and lack intellectual independence.David Turner, "The Swedish module", Financial Times 23 maj
In England’s case, the motivation is a malaise common in many other western countries. A stubborn core of children leaves school with few or no qualifications, and problems with literacy and numeracy that provoke constant complaints from employers.
although Swedish free schools achieve on average better results than state-run rivals, problems remain. Asked how one runs an excellent school system, Per Thullberg, head of the Swedish government’s agency for education, says bluntly: 'We can’t give the world good examples.'
His scepticism is supported by recent results. Since free schools were set up, pupil performance across the Swedish system has declined in comparison with international peers.
Jan-Eric Gustafsson of Gothenburg university adds that, since the 1990s, there has also been a 'steep decline' in attainment compared with previous generations of Swedes. In addition, according to Mr Thullberg, free schools do no better than others in academic tests, after allowing for the fact that families choosing them tend to be more highly educated.
Even Bertil Ostberg, schools minister in the ruling centre-right coalition and a pioneer of free schools, is sceptical. He says that in the 1990s, reformers hoped that through 'competition over quality, all schools should become better'. He concludes: 'I wouldn’t say that this has failed but maybe some expectations were too high that this would change the system as a whole.' /.../
Mikael Lindahl, an economist at Stockholm University, says the free market model has not fully worked because it has been difficult to implement an essential element of competition – closing unwanted schools.
According to Samuel Huhta, the state-run school he heads in a suburb of Stockholm has capacity for 600 pupils and used to have that number on its rolls. However, because of competition from local free schools, now 'we’ve got about half of that'. Three years ago, he says, the city council earmarked 10 out of 140 schools, including his own, for closure because of falling pupil numbers. However, parental pressure and media opposition ensured that none were shut.
Mr Gove acknowledges Sweden’s difficulties in closing schools. His solution is to make it easier for parents to take over old ones.
Critics are unimpressed. John Dunford, of the Association of School and College Leaders, warns that the 'very mixed' evidence from Sweden on whether free schools boost standards makes it 'like an act of faith by the government to introduce them here'.
In Sweden advocates of free schools, such as Mats Pertoft, Green party education spokesman, acknowledge that that they have not markedly improved results. But, for him, this was never the point – choice was."
"The Swedish schools model championed by the Conservatives may not be cost-effective if imported to England, according to a paper from the London School of Economics.David Turner, "Warning over Tory schools proposals", FT 23 maj
Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, has proposed increasing parental choice over the type of school that their child attends, by allowing parents’ groups, charities, trusts and voluntary organisations to set up schools. They would be taxpayer-funded, not-for-profit and free, but independent from state control. This pluralistic system has much in common with the Swedish regime, which the Conservatives have praised. The Tories have argued that greater choice would improve the quality of education – partly through the free-market virtue of boosting competition.
However, the LSE note says: 'Importing the Swedish model may not make very much difference to the UK’s educational status quo.' It explains: 'In the early 1990s, Sweden started from a position of no school choice: all pupils had to attend the state school in their neighbourhood. In the UK, however, there is already much school choice and a diversity of provision.'
It also finds flaws in attempting 'the application of market economics to the public sector'. The essay explains: 'There is no natural mechanism for closing down poor schools (they do not literally go bust). Closing down schools can be slow, political and unpopular.' In reality, 'governments will have to support simultaneously the new schools and the older ‘‘bad’’ ones ... The latter will not exit at an efficient rate'. The authors say this would reduce the 'cost-effectiveness' of 'school creation'. "