Education: A Golden Age

“The education sector’s structure and policies will change more in the next 3 years than they changed in the last 2,500 years”

Sweden/England/Wales – wonderful voucher policy advances, but great and rapid academic progress will require globalized instruction


Sweden’s voucher program as a blueprint for full “voucherization” of the school system in England and Wales.

“…carefully designing a blueprint which would enable the establishment of a new breed of local independent schools, funded by the state but not run by it. It is potentially a plan of huge significance.”

“But there is now a mass of academic studies — one surveying 28,000 pupils — showing that such fears are unjustified. In education, a rising tide really does lift all boats. The older schools improve as they are galvanised by the pressure of the new: shape up, or lose pupils and money. It works.”

“…[the] array of competing pedagogical styles is the main fruit of the Swedish approach. ”

“They are directed there by the invisible hand. Schools do best where the concentration of teachable children is highest, and the discontent with old schools the greatest. These are the simple laws of the market. And they would hold good for a Britain where at least 100,000 parents were denied their first choice of secondary school last year.”

Yet there is one part of the Swedish system which is too openly capitalist even for the Tories: allowing schools to make a profit. In the Prime Minister’s Office in Stockholm’s old town, Mikael Sandström, a state secretary for the Moderate party administration, explains why the Tories are wrong. ‘If you’re a not-for-profit school, then the longer the waiting list the better,’ he says. ‘It’s a lot of trouble to expand, so they don’t. Also, profit-making schools have been shown to have less social segregation.’ And then he says something one would be surprised to hear in the White House, let alone the Rosenbad in Stockholm. ‘The question for me is whether we should abolish non-profit-making schools,’ Sandström says. I am not at all sure he was joking.

“…the voucher value rises to £10,000 a pupil, as it will for children from poorer families…”

“Mr Gove’s new schools would probably offer different exams to the fast-devaluing crop of GCSEs and A-levels. As an alternative, the International GCSE could be taught, the International Baccalaureate — or the new Cambridge Pre-U exam being launched this autumn. All this would open up a more fundamental debate: should schools impart knowledge, or teach skills? At present, this is a debate that obsesses politicians in England — and one which Mr Ledin considers hilarious. ‘No one person has the right idea on education. Why not let schools take different approaches, and let parents choose?’

The Prime Minister is known to take a dim view of all this. Choice, he argues, means the maintenance of surplus places which he equates with waste. Yet the irony is that his profligate spending has made the Tory voucher scheme possible: education spending is so high that funding per pupil is now sufficient to make it desirable to set up a school. And there are plenty of Blairite ministers who privately concede that Mr Cameron is right. ‘It’s exactly the right idea,’ a Cabinet member told me recently. ‘Our problem is that we have too many “top-down” people in the Labour party. They have won.’

“Tellingly, Professor Julian Le Grand, a former senior adviser to Mr Blair, is helping develop a voucher system for deprived children in conjunction with Policy Exchange, the Cameroons’ favourite think-tank. Its report is likely to be lapped up by Mr Gove. ‘Labour has always shown interest in this. But it’s the Conservatives who have really jumped on it,’ says Professor Le Grand. And does it surprise him that it’s the Right that has picked this up and run with it? ‘My aim is to provide a more effective, efficient school system regardless of which political party picks it up.’

There is a striking convergence of ideology around the case for school liberalisation. It was an idea first expressed by Milton Friedman in 1955 — and yet the Tories have adopted their system not from one of the many American states which have voucher schools but from Sweden, perhaps the most socialistic country in the free world. The policy should resolve the Tory party’s historic agony over grammar schools, being (potentially) a more effective, flexible and dynamic means of promoting social mobility than the old tripartite system of academic selection. The Liberal Democrats have also embraced the choice agenda for education, and are competing with the Tories to see whose voucher would be worth most.And for Mr Cameron, it is a substantial answer to claims that he has no ideas. Here is a policy so radical and substantial that people like Professor Le Grand are working on its finer details. The test will be whether he can convey to Labour voters that he now represents the best hope for delivering true social justice in education. He has, at least, one priceless advantage, which may yet prove the salvation of education in England: he does not have the Labour party holding him back.”


Our comment: We applaud the wonderful Swedish voucher policy advances. But academic resources within the Swedish school arena have been significantly depleted over the past 40 years, and so the real academic gains will come with instruction from teachers distributed throughout much of the world – it remains the case that the most important 21st century use of vouchers is to pay for such instruction, while continuing to use the extensive public school facilities (the facility role and the instruction role become split, and the financing likewise).


2008/03/5 - Posted by | Performance - school, Policy, Sweden, Vouchers, Wales

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