Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Swedish free schools in the UK: the illusory perception of Sweden and its implications for the future British school

Today saw the publication of the PISA-ranking for 2012. That is, the triennial comparison of academic abilities (maths, science, reading) among pupils in 65 countries. Here in the UK the focus is naturally on how the British pupils fared, flatlining in the mid-20’s. the British focus should be on how the Swedish pupils fared, as they plummeted to the lower-30’s.

Michael Gove
Why should the British care? Because it is the Swedish free school model their education minister Michael Gove has been introducing these past three years. This model is a neo-liberal one. Created in the 1990's, it opened up the Swedish school sector to risk capital, commodified the children, eviscerated the school sector for the benefit of profit-making companies, devalued and ostracized the teachers' (admittedly abetted by a previous municipalization reform.)

One of the model's architects was Anders Hultin, then special advisor at the Swedish ministry of education. Ever since the model was introduced it has played havoc with quality of education, enriched a few free school company owners – including Hultin –  whilst devaluing the teaching profession (wages, status, conditions) with accompanying consequences for the quality of teaching and education. Hence, it is no surprise to see today’s PISA-rankings for 2012.

Sweden is falling. As usual. The fact of the matter is that since the PISA-rankings began, no other OECD country has fallen as much as Sweden. It has been a painfully consistent deterioration. Less high-achieving pupils, more unqualified teachers. Thus, even the current Swedish Conservative government is rolling back some of the worst aspects of the free school model, and its school minister has made it clear that he would actually prefer to re-nationalize the school.

It is therefore bewildering that the UK thinks it should learn from Sweden. As the PISA-rankings shows, the British might be "stuck in educational doldrums", but they're still well ahead of Sweden. And yet the UK wants to follow Sweden’s example.

As a former teacher from Sweden, now living in the UK, I was initially gobsmacked by how easily Gove could advocate the Swedish model. The hard facts said it all: do-not-follow-Sweden's-lead. But I have come to realize that it probably boils down to that emotive, non-factually based picture of Sweden that lingers on here in the UK; an uninformed and insalubrious perception of Sweden as a veritable Utopia, not least among the left-leaning strands of society (so-called Guardianistas). As Sweden was recently described in the Guardian: "the Mecca towards which Guardianistas face for their daily five minutes of mindfulness". 

But just as everything the US does is not ipso facto malign, everything Sweden does is not by itself benign.

Apart from being the OECD country whose educational standing has deteriorated most, in no other OECD country has the socio-economic divisions – between rich and poor – increased more in the last 20 years than in Sweden. This is a country that quite regularly suffers riots in deprived suburbs with high immigration population, that has had its prime minister (1986) and its foreign minister (2003) murdered, that has long been a haven for the neo-Nazi movement and has a (nominally reformed) neo-Nazi party in parliament which is currently the third largest party in the polls.

The British should take a long hard look at their ill-informed infatuation with Sweden. By continuously holding up Sweden as an Eden on earth – for instance by Guardian recently proclaiming that "Sweden is practically a metonym for social progressiveness" – they set themselves up for a KO-blow when Thatcherites like Gove implement neo-liberal reforms that have also been implemented in Sweden. And so Gove can safely enter any debate – like a modern Cato – by always finishing his lines with: "And, besides, they do it in Sweden!" End of discussion. 

Anders Hultin 
As for Mr Hultin, he was living in London prior to – and a while after – the last UK election (2010) in order to inter alia assist Gove and his chums in preparing and implementing the Swedish free school model. After overseeing its introduction in Sweden, Hultin proceeded to create his own free school company, making himself rich in the process. How? Simples. By taking the tax funded money each pupil brings to the school and investing as little as possible of it in teachers and educational material (for example by shutting down libraries in schools, by having as few teachers per as many pupils as possible, preferably unqualified teachers with low salary demands). And the money saved has of course been put – by way of dividends, interest rates payments, selling of schools – into Hultin's and his Hayekian hubbies' pockets. So much so that the last free school company Hultin headed recently filed for bankruptcy, leaving 1000's of pupils with no schools to go to. Who had to pick up the tab, re-school the pupils and pay the teachers who where suddenly made redundant? The Swedish tax payer of course. Whilst Hultin laughs all the way to the bailed out bank.

Blinded by their illusory image of Sweden, this is what the British are heading towards. A situation where a few will make themselves rich on the expense of the British children, schools and taxpayers'.