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21 June 2010

Will Michael Gove’s school reforms push up standards?

The evidence from Sweden ain’t great.

By Mehdi Hasan

My column in this week’s magazine addresses — and criticises — the Education Secretary Michael Gove’s plan to expand the previous government’s academies programme.

I didn’t have time or space to scrutinise the other key (and controversial) plank of his proposed reforms to the education sector: the introduction of Swedish-style “free schools”. But the Institute of Education’s Rebecca Allen has, in an article in the latest issue of Research in Public Policy (published by the Centre for Market and Public Organisation), and the overall results don’t make great reading for Gove and his allies.

From the press release:

Research on Sweden’s “free school” reforms suggests that the entry of new schools had a positive effect on pupils’ academic achievements. But according to a survey of the evidence by Rebecca Allen, the benefits are small, they are predominantly focused on children from highly educated families and they do not persist: scores are no higher in the end-of-school exams.

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Allen concludes that the experience of Sweden is helpful, but necessarily limited, in the extent to which it can help predict the impact of school reforms in England. One reason for this is that the schools also underwent a radical decentralisation of the education system, which would seem to be critical for promoting diversity and productivity gains through experimentation in free schools.

Sweden also has fewer reasons to be concerned that a free school system will produce greater school stratification since the country’s lower levels of income and skill inequalities mean there is far less need for parents to choose schools based on social composition. It is also possible that Sweden’s stronger tradition of non-standard schooling — such as Steiner and Montessori schools — is leading to a greater diversity of provision than parents in England would ever demand.