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Elite British-style schools open to all – but only in Sweden

Schools in the state sector in Sweden can offer the acclaimed International GCSE (IGCSE) science qualifications that have been denied to British state school pupils by the government, according to Swedish Lessons, a report published today by independent think-tank Civitas.

Science IGCSEs are used increasingly in British independent schools due to their internationally recognised high standards, one of the clearest indicators yet of the growing ‘educational apartheid’ between the state and independent sector. Nick Cowen commented: ‘The fact that state schools are forced to teach a narrow curriculum and offer less valuable qualifications due to bureaucratic edicts is bad enough. But now we are faced with the likelihood that Swedes will be emerging from their state-funded secondary schools with better British qualifications than the majority of British pupils are even allowed to attempt. This is what political interference by successive British governments in the school curriculum has led to.’

Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES), a chain of state-funded independent schools in Sweden, has been certified to teach courses for the University of Cambridge’s International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE). This year, IES’s pupils have the option of taking IGCSEs in the sciences. From next year, maths, English and Art and Design will also be available.

IGCSE science courses focus on the theory and practice of the core three sciences: physics, chemistry and biology. But they have been barred in state schools because the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) say they are not compatible with the restrictive criteria set down by the National Curriculum. The government has instead encouraged schools to take up a new course based on the ‘Twenty-first century science’ curriculum, which focuses on ethical and citizenship issues surrounding science in the media, rather than the scientific method and the sciences as bodies of knowledge.

The Swedish system of ‘free’ schools

In Sweden, any group of people can set up a school – for-profit, charitable, faith-based, co-operative – and receive funding from the state. Like British comprehensives, these schools, known as friskolor, are free to parents and are non-selective up to the age of 16 (p. 10). Unlike British state schools, they are independently owned and managed: able to hire their own staff, choose their own teaching methods and manage their assets. Although students are required to take several national exams, schools are given significant independence over the content of lessons and any additional qualifications that their students work towards.

Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES) has used this opportunity to create an innovative school profile that includes teaching English to a high standard and performance-based learning as a way to improve the educational and life outcomes of their children. According to Nick Cowen, who visited the school:

‘You get some idea of the pride in achievement that this school chain has by gazing along the school office wall. It is covered in diplomas, certificates, newspaper cuttings describing pupil achievements and photographs of smiling students who have just been handed awards. Elsewhere trophies gleam in cabinets. The whole atmosphere is typified by one framed slogan referenced to the Kennedy Space Center: “Failure is not an option”. It is not just academic pursuits that this attitude pervades, but also competitive sports and character-building activities such as summer camps.

Embodying this “work hard, play hard” philosophy, it is as if an elite British school has been carefully packed up, flown over the North Sea and rebuilt in a modern factory warehouse in a suburb of Stockholm; and, crucially, opened its doors to every child who chooses to go there. This is an elite school that is not only for the elite.’ (p.4)

Choice, Equality, Diversity

IES are just one of many successful types of school that became possible because of Sweden’s 1992 school choice reforms. Friskolor are funded by the state so long as they do not select pupils and do not charge any ‘top-up’ fees. Parents are allowed to choose any school in the system, either state or independent, that has a place available. Independent schools are legally required to accept pupils on a first-come-first-served basis (p.11).

Nick Cowen: ‘School choice in Sweden has often been caricatured as an endorsement of a free market free-for-all. In fact, equality of opportunity is a key feature, preventing successful schools from “cream skimming” the best pupils from other schools. Schools have very limited powers over admissions, giving parents the final say on which school their children attend.’

Independent schools perform better, on average, than state-managed schools in Sweden and the ability to choose a school is popular with parents (p.26). More importantly, all schools improve their outcomes when new independent schools open in their area (pp.26-29). Children from immigrant backgrounds and children with special educational needs benefit in particular from a wider choice of schools (p.28).

Freedom in the curriculum

A key feature of school choice in Sweden is that it does not advocate one way of teaching to be enforced by the government, or even one set of outcomes that all schools must pursue to be successful. Instead teachers and educational professionals are set free from the burdensome aspects of government policy and allowed to use the methods they think are best suited to a particular context:

‘What is a school meant to look like if you let there be choice?… teachers and educationalists advance different forms of schools, and parents evaluate the results by choosing between them. A school might look like a traditional independent school or it might use Montessori or another personalised learning pedagogy. It might use the latest technology or it might concentrate on traditional teaching methods. There might be an emphasis on science or languages, or on other activities such as sport. More than likely there will be a wide diversity catering for different families.’ (p5)

Swedish Lessons concludes that the government should allow an equivalent to friskolor (Free Schools) to open in England: non-selective independent schools that are exempt from the National Curriculum. They should not be permitted to charge fees and should be reimbursed out of local authority budgets for each pupil that attends. Families should be able to choose to attend these schools if they prefer them to the state schools in their areas and places should be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis. Schools that successfully attract pupils from low-income backgrounds should receive extra funding, in order to encourage new schools to open in poorer areas and ensure that better life-chances are extended to all children.

Notes to editors:

  • i. Civitas is an independent social policy think-tank. It receives no state funding either directly or indirectly and has no links to any political party. Civitas’s education research seeks to take an objective view of educational standards in Britain. It aims to offer an improved perspective on how best to deliver equitable and high standards of education for all.
  • ii. Swedish Lessons: How schools with more freedom can deliver better education by Nick Cowen is published by Civitas, 77 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 2EZ (tel 020 7799 6677), at £8.50 inc. pp

For more information ring:
Nick Cowen (author): 020 7799 6677

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