Tuesday 3 June 2008

Swedish lessons

I have a piece in this month's Progress magazine on what the parties can learn from Swedish education reform. The full piece is online here. My main argument is:

Labour has greatly extended diversity within state schools, and is expanding academies by 55 a year, reflecting local need: academies largely replace the 638 low-attaining schools where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils gain five good GCSEs. And academies reduce social segregation by attracting a more comprehensive intake than the sink schools they often replace.

The Tories' approach is more laissez faire - and more expensive. Sweden doesn't pay the capital costs of free schools. And this is the Achilles' heel of the Tory approach: they will go into an election effectively scrapping planned new schools in dozens of constituencies. By providing 100 per cent capital, they reduce risk for the promoters and invest in a lot of failed projects. They also could greatly reduce the dynamism in the Swedish system, arguably only possible without huge state capital investment.

Nevertheless, there are lessons for Labour in the Swedish approach. Despite the 2006 Education and Inspections Act, it is still too difficult for diverse providers to establish new schools. Local authorities should move much more towards becoming commissioners.The current system requires huge pressure from the centre on recalcitrant authorities - though attitudes are changing - and future reform should require authorities to respond more readily to demand for diversity from parents. Automatic capitation for sustainable proposals with clear parental backing would be a good start.

It would be unwise, as the Tories propose, to attach automatic capital funding. Easier access to suitable disused public buildings, though, might be a good alternative. Subsidised school transport should be extended to support all parents' choices. More diversity would help primary as well as secondary schools. And councils should actively encourage parents interested in starting their own schools.

But we shouldn't underestimate how much freer schools in England are than most of their international counterparts. Our level of financial delegation to head teachers - extended by Labour - is unusual. Our parents can access more objective information than most. And the diversity spearheaded by academies and trust schools places English schools in the forefront of education reform. Let's learn what we can from Sweden, but don't underestimate how far we've come.

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