I was pleased to be able to contribute to a feature on 'Free Schools' in this week's copy of 'The Socialist' newspaper.
Alongside my article, is this report from Sweden:
20 years of the market has led to poorer education
Sigbritt Herbert, Teaching Swedish as a second language in Sweden since 1975In 1992 the Swedish conservative government launched the "right to choose" reform in the Swedish school system. That meant that all children got a price tag, a set sum of money that they (or their parents) could use to shop around among different schools to get the best possible education that 'suited their needs'. That was one of the explanations for the new education system that was introduced.
Another explanation was that teachers that felt 'stifled' by the oppressive monopoly system must be freed to use the teaching methods that they preferred. That all sounded good. Now, after almost 20 years, we have begun to see the result of the 'reform'.
More and more schools, especially sixth form colleges, have been started, or taken over, by profit-making companies, some with their headquarters abroad.
These companies have realised there is easy money to be made. They get a set sum of money for each student. That sum is the same for each student irrespective of his or her needs. The free schools have the right to say 'no' to a child whereas the council schools can't do that.
League tablesIn order to get students, the schools must try to prove that they are a "good" school. Each year the newspapers show tables listing the 'best' schools, ie the schools where the students have got the highest grades.
So an easy way to show that you are a good school is to give high grades to your students. There are set criteria for each grade, but these are free to interpretation. Karl Ågerup, an ex-free school teacher has written in his book Barnens Marknad (the Children's Market) about a maths teacher in his school who showed the results in maths in one class to the headteacher. "There are too many 'not passed'. You have to increase the grades," he responded.
It is not just by giving high grades that you can attract students. Many free sixth form colleges also offer laptops for their students. They also offer popular courses that don't cost much money to run, for example song and dance or sports.
Making moneyHow do the free schools make money? One way is of course not to accept students that require more resources, like children with disabilities or whose first language is not Swedish.
Another way is to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio. Last summer I read a statement from the managing director of one of the biggest free school companies. He explained their lower pupil-teacher ratio by saying that their teachers could spend more time with their students as the company had set computer-based lessons. For me, computer-based lessons would mean that teachers can't adapt the lessons to the needs of their students or to the composition of the different classes.
Another managing director, Johan G-tefeldt for Pysslingen AB, told the magazine Skolledaren (for headteachers): "We have more efficient premises and are working more efficiently with costs, less caretaking, less bureaucracy and fewer secretarial posts for instance." That company last year handed out more than four million Swedish crowns (£400,000) to their five shareholders.
The free schools can reduce other costs as well. Many free schools don't have a school library or a school nurse. If the students are in need of transport, because of distance, the free school has no obligation to provide this because the parents have chosen not to use the nearest council school. Yet the council schools have to fund taxi or bus journeys.
Working conditionsThe working conditions for the staff in the profit-making free schools are worse than in the council schools. More time with the students can mean less time to do a good job with lesson preparation.
The teachers don't have school holidays, but only five weeks holiday. Is it any wonder that profit-making schools have a higher rate of unqualified teachers, pay lower rates and have a high turnover of staff? Karl Ågerup describes the first question he got asked as he walked into a class: "How long are you staying? We don't want to change teacher again."
With the 'freedom of choice' the Swedish schools have become more segregated, with free schools having more unqualified teachers.
The working conditions of all teachers have deteriorated over the last 20 years, with more work and pay that has fallen behind other professions. The number of students applying for teacher training is now, in some subjects, lower than the number of spaces at college.
The official theory was that competition is good and that the horrible state monopoly schools would improve if they met competition. That should benefit all. What is the outcome after nearly 20 years?
PISA is an OECD measure of the educational attainment of 15 year-olds in the main industrialised countries. The latest report shows that the educational standard of Swedish students has dropped considerably.
It now worries even the traditional free market proponents. SNS, a business-funded think tank in a report on 7 September dismissed the free school system. The author Jonas Vlachos, has found that students who entered sixth form from free schools performed worse than students from council schools with the same grades.
The reasons behind the failure of Swedish students are many. PISA 2009 had some interesting things to say:
School systems that offer parents more school choices are less effective in raising the performance of all children.
Segregation leads to lower quality results.
The quality of teaching is key to educational outcomes.
Every politician has over the last 15 years promised better schools, but the result is the opposite. The reason is that no one wants to address the real problem, lack of funding and the spurious 'freedom of choice'.
Even an ex-minister of the Social Democratic party has been on the board of Pysslingen AB. In spite of all evidence about the drawbacks it will take a lot to make the established parties reverse the situation. They are too anxious about losing the votes of middle class voters in the big cities.