One of the Coalition’s flagship education policies is free schools. Free schools are free from local authority control and derive their funding direct from the Department for Education. They can be set up by any group including parents, as long as they meet the approval of the Secretary of State. They have been billed as being set up in response to ‘what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for the children in their community’. They are therefore seen as the epitome of localism, the very essence of local people being empowered to bring about positive change by wresting control from the clammy hand of the local authority and creating schools which really make a difference. Michael Gove has championed this policy, and despite desultory numbers of applications, still pushes ahead with this strategy.
Gove cites two countries, the US and Sweden, as influencing his Free Schools policy. The US have charter schools and Sweden has free schools which are run by the private sector for profit. This article focuses on the Swedish free schools.
I was lucky enough to spend some time with Susanne Wiborg from the Institute of Education recently, who is an expert in comparative and international education and has written a report on the Swedish free school model. Our conversation, and my subsequent reading of some of her work illustrated some very telling points about how the debate (or rather lack of it), has unfolded in this country, and I would like to share some of this here.
I tend to believe people when they talk to me, even politicians, even Michael Gove. If someone tells me something is good, I tend to believe them because why would they lie to me? So people could tell me Ikea does great stuff for your house, particularly if you are on a budget, and I get down to the store and find this to be true (and knock myself out with a plate of meatballs to boot). So when Gove started lauding the benefits of the free schools in Sweden I just assumed they were a great success and they had a real coverage and impact, a little like Ikea. The lazy part of my brain ran a nice little riff which went:
‘the Swedes are logical and good at design, they are unsentimental but also have a kind of flinty soul which redeems them, they can take something boring like buying stuff for your house and turn it into a great day out for the family with cheap food; when they turn that kind of intelligence to education they are bound to do something equally transformative, the Tories must have heard of this, fully researched it, and brought the policy back to England for the benefit of all’
It turns out the reality is a great deal different. Firstly Swedish Free Schools are a lot rarer than I had thought. Here are the facts:
In 1991, there were a little over 60 non-public schools in the country and, by 2009/2010, their numbers had reached 709 [...] The number of pupils in free schools has increased from 20,247 pupils in 1995/96 to 95,948 pupils in 2009/10.
So there are free schools in Sweden, but they hardly outnumber the public schools, and Susanne explained that when Free Schools were first being brought up as a policy she was surprised as she did not see this as a particularly important feature of the Swedish education system.
Secondly I believed that the Swedish public were in favour of free schools, surely this wonderful new way of providing education was going to capture the hearts and minds of the public and parents. Wrong again! The report explains that free schools have met ‘profound criticism’ and the public seem to have been most exercised by the idea of shares, money and profit rather than any innovative forms of education the schools are providing. Now the UK model has taken profit out of the system, but the report found little or nothing to suggest that these schools, once free of central or local control, actually did anything meaningful with that freedom. Free sounds such a good word, who wouldn’t want to be ‘free’, but without substantial and sustained educational innovation, this freedom means nothing. The Free schools didn’t use their freedom to reinvent education in the same way as Ikea reinvented furniture, they simply set up another beige version of MFI, eroded the workers’ pay and conditions, and were constantly looking over their shoulder at the balance sheet to make sure they made a profit rather than doing anything radical to improve the way they delivered education.
My final belief, soon to go the way of the other two as the hard facts loomed into picture, was that the free schools must have better results and achievement than the public schools. Surely this is where the emperor’s real clothes would shine. After all, Michael Gove never gives any speech without waving PISA data around like a talisman and berating the English system for falling so far behind international standards. Surely the Swedish free schools, whatever else they were doing, showed much much better results than their public school rivals. The reality is not the case, based on summaries of Swedish research comparing free schools and public schools. Some studies found no differences at all, one study did find a short term and small improvement in results in free schools, but:
…the short-term effect is too small to yield any long-term positive effects for young people. In other words, the advantage that children schooled in areas with free schools have by the age of 16 is not translated into greater achievements later in life as they score no better in the final exams in upper secondary education at the age of 18/19. They are also no more likely to participate in higher education than those who were schooled in areas without free schools. The children from highly educated families gain mostly from education in free schools, but the impact on families and immigrants who had received a low level of education is hardly visible. (Wiborg, 2010, p. 14)
“Damn!”, I muttered, wrong 3 times; made a fool of 3 times by my belief that Gove had done his homework (in Latin) and the Swedish Free schools were a) widespread b) popular c) had great results. Bear in mind the final part of the quotation above which shows there is no visible impact for children of parents with low levels of education or immigrants, and then read these words from a Michael Gove Speech:
In every school year there are 600,000 children. The very poorest are those eligible for free school meals – 80,000 in every year. And out of those 80,000 how many do you think make it to the best universities? Just 45. More children from one public school – Westminster – make it to the top universities than the entire population of poor boys and girls on this benefit. (Gove, 2010)
I end this post with one simple conclusion. This is an emperor without any clothes, an emperor so naked he would shiver as the cold wind blew from the Thames and tickled his nether regions as he paraded on Parliament Square. Even if we implemented the Swedish free school system on the kind of scale needed to make a difference (say around 60,000 students in free schools in every school year, 10% of the total), Gove’s aim of increasing the intake of Free School Meals students to the top universities would not be met. The importing of the free schools idea from Sweden clearly has nothing to do with proven success in raising educational outcomes and very few commentators to date have picked up on this simple but crucial fact.
The English free school policy is pure ideology on Gove’s part driven by a desire to break the teaching unions and national pay and standards for teachers. Gove has by now realised that free schools are going to be so rare that they won’t help him achieve this goal. Hence the recent shift to accelerate the academisation of English education.
Gove, M. (2010) Speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, 5th October 2010. [online] Available at: http://www.epolitix.com/latestnews/article-detail/newsarticle/speech-in-full-michael-gove/. Date accessed: 17th June 2011.
Wiborg, S (2010) Swedish Free Schools: Do they work? published by the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies at: http://www.llakes.org