‘Free schools’ won’t save British education

A Swede tells the Tories that they are wrong to get so overexcited about the Swedish free-school model.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics UK

Traditionally it was left-leaning Brits who pined after Swedish models, but in this year’s General Election campaign it’s the Conservatives who are taking inspiration from the north. Party leader David Cameron, as part of his plan to build a Big Society, wants to allow parents, charities, churches and other groups to set up their own so-called ‘free schools’ – a hybrid of Sweden’s friskolor and American charter schools. It is time, Cameron says, to end ‘education bureaucracy’, give parents more choice, and infuse the school system with healthy competition in order to drive up standards.

New Labour says such reforms would threaten local education budgets as old state schools are likely to lose pupils, and therefore funding, to the new free schools (which would receive state-funding but would operate independently). Critics also say that the reforms will entrench inequalities, as children with parents who are willing to put in the time and effort needed to set up or ‘shop around’ for schools will benefit, while others will be left behind. For the Conservatives, however, competition is key. They believe that, as associations and interest groups set up schools according to certain children’s needs, all schools will have to up their game in order to attract pupils and funding.

But what has been missed out in the budget- and competition-centred debate around free schools is how this survival-of-the-fittest version of education devalues authority – the authority of teachers, of learning and of knowledge – and how it encourages young people to accept their lot rather than to challenge it.

Parent power vs teacher power

Like New Labour’s existing academies, free schools will also be out of local authority control and will promote parent choice. Already, by the end of last year, hundreds of parents had expressed interest in the Tories’ Swedish/American-style scheme, suggesting that there is, indeed, a lot of disgruntlement about the state of British education.

It is understandable that parents want to ensure their children get the best schooling possible and that they are willing to do everything they can to sort out the failings of the education system. The annual scramble for school places in the UK has revealed parents lying about where they live in order to pass the residency test for a particular school, or suddenly attending church each Sunday in order to fulfil the pupil entry requirements of faith schools. But while groups of parents with shared interests and visions could certainly come up with some good solutions for their children, such pockets of inspiring education will not address the failing quality of mainstream education.

Moreover, pushy parents intervening in the minutiae of everyday life at school can undermine the authority of teachers, who become duty-bound primarily to parents’ demands. A Swedish state-school headmistress interviewed for a BBC Newsnight report earlier this year indicated that parents don’t always know best when it comes to judging how children should relate to knowledge and their peers. In her view, parents sometimes cause disruption in schools, because following the extension of school choice in Sweden it has become easier for children to change schools. She related anecdotally how, when children encounter problems in lessons or with their mates – something every child goes through – parents now more readily pull their children out of the school. This, she said, prevents children from learning a crucial lesson: that ‘if there is a problem, you need to solve it’.

The devaluation of knowledge

The Tories’ free schools would, in reality, be a continuation of the specialist academies introduced under Tony Blair. Blair’s education tsar, Andrew Adonis, made study visits to Sweden long before the Tory shadow education minister, Michael Gove, went there for his Swedish lessons. The Blairite academies are shiny, funky, high-tech monuments to the devaluation of subject-based academic learning, which under New Labour has been dismissed as ‘elitist’ and ‘unnecessary’.

Young people are no longer encouraged to view education as edifying so much as necessary for strengthening their CVs. And judging from the Swedish experience, British free schools are likely to perpetuate the abandonment of the principle of learning for its own sake in favour of the acquisition of particular skills or attitudes. Swedish free schools offer programmes in everything from arts and media studies to agriculture, handicrafts and finance. The Tories are celebrating this kind of individualised learning, where parents and young people pursue their private interests in relation to schooling.

Yes, the bureaucratisation of education under New Labour – the much-maligned ‘targets culture’ – has weighed down education. But the move towards the privatisation of schooling is a sign that the political class has given up on the idea of the school as an institution that transmits universal knowledge to the whole of the next generation.

Inequality and segregation

The left in Britain and in Sweden have criticised free schools for putting children from educated, middle-class families at an advantage, solidifying rather than blurring the lines of segregation. There is choice in theory, but in practice the market has not reduced inequalities, critics say.

There are conflicting studies on the results of free schools and the extent to which their introduction has raised standards of education overall. As for individual students, Per Thulberg, director general of the Swedish National Agency for Education, told Newsnight that while Swedish pupils studying in new schools have higher results on average, this is probably a result of the fact that they are mostly from well-educated, middle-class families and are more likely to do better in school anyway. The fact that a majority of Swedish free schools can be found in Stockholm and Gothenburg, the two major cities, also suggests that they are a metropolitan phenomenon.

Others warn that, if Britain goes down the Swedish route, education will be tainted by business and will have to submit to the profit motive, so that pupils in new schools will become pawns of the market. A prime difference – for the moment – between the Tories’ vision for educational reform and the Swedish ‘education revolution’ (in social democratic Sweden, scaling back the state in favour of granting individual choice is still quite a novelty), is that the Tories will not allow British free schools to be profit-making. Three quarters of the 1,000-odd Swedish free schools are owned by private businesses.

But the primary way in which free schools can lead to segregation and social division is in how they encourage children to be educated in the manner deemed acceptable to that particular section of society to which their parents belong. Michael Gove has said that, in Sweden, young people from poor areas have been able to escape failing state schools. Certainly, reducing or scrapping residency requirements is a good thing – though in Sweden proximity, along with sibling attendance and application timing, is one of the entrance criteria for free schools, too. For upper secondary free schools, grades determine admission.

Yes, free schools offer certain opportunities to attend a school in another council area from the one you live in (a good thing), but in the end the free school system, rather than creating a more equal school system, will further separate people along the lines of school background. It offers liberal parents the chance to send their children to the same school, it allows religious children the chance to be educated in religious schools, working-class children to receive vocational training, and so on.

Creating a culture that values learning

There is nothing wrong with communities of interest, but neither is there any point in pretending that free schools are the answer to segregation. As Frank Furedi pointed out in a recent essay on spiked, in principle there’s nothing wrong with private education, but it is not the private status itself which guarantees success. Many of the institutions in Britain’s independent education sector, Furedi said, ‘are built on a legacy of significant cultural and intellectual capital. Their achievements are organically linked to a tradition of excellence, which is supported by generations of influential and privileged parents. Such schools cannot be cobbled together through parental ambition or the workings of the market.’

It would indeed be a great relief if, after New Labour’s constant tinkering with the curriculum and its devaluation of subject-based learning, the British school system could be freed from bureaucratic demands and philistinism. But while politicians should cut back on their meddling in everyday school affairs, they should also accept responsibility for providing a public school system that adheres to high standards for all.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi discussed the value of education in a spiked election essay. He also called upon adults to give children the store of human knowledge. Jennie Bristow interviewed Frank Furedi about his latest book, Wasted. After Michael Gove attacked the way children are pushed toward easier subjects, Tim Black said the real problem is a society that has devalued education. Neil Davenport said education was suffering from a low level of ambition. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today