On the same edition of Newsnight, the Swedish model for independent schools, and their supporter here, the British Conservative Party, came under attack from Liz MacKean on Newsnight.
The report did make some efforts at fairness, featuring Bo Nyberg, headmaster of one of the new schools, children and parents who go to the new schools and Anders Hultin, former advisor to the Swewish School Ministry, who helped establish the system. Mr Hulton criticised the Tories for not allowing the profit motive into the scheme. This, he argued (doubtless correctly) might mean that the scheme won't take off as it should.
The overall tenor of the report, however, was critical and hostile. Though we heard early on from Lena Jendi, headmistress of an old state school who is unhappy with the new schools , the report's onslaught against the Conservatives really kicked in at 33.50 on the BBC i-Player. Of the Conservatives' argument that standards have risen in Sweden, Lizzie was emphatic: "That's not what we've been told." She went on, "A few years ago it was notice that in fact standards across all schools in Sweden were slipping. International comparative studies, as well as national research, confirmed the decline. It's not known why (but that didn't stop Liz from speculating...) that the slide began at about the time the schools were introduced." (Aha! Cause and effect, or pure coincidence? No smoke without fire?) Her star witness in 'confirming' this decline was bureaucrat Per Thulberg, Director General of the Swedish National Agency for Education. "So overall results are down," she continued, "and there are strong indications of increased social segregation inside the school system." "It won't be what the Conservatives want to hear", she gloated. "They even told me that their view that competition improves all schools was based on a hunch. So what does the Swedish experience really tell us?" For her answer (which the Conservatives also wouldn't want to hear) it as straight back to the leftie bureaucrat.
"Swedish politicians are now having a re-think," we were then told, before Liz reached her conclusions: "The new schools remain popular but they're likely to face more inspections and more rigorous testing. After a period of freedom, it's time to introduce more ground rules."
Much of this is strongly disputed, from the statement that Swedish politicians are having a re-think to the whole idea that standards really have declined. Michael Gove certainly disputed it, saying "I enjoyed Liz's report but there were no facts in there". Emily Maitlis, who conducted this interview, was not too happy with this and later interrupted (as he was in the middle of making an interesting point to counter the 'increasing segregation' argument) to say "Let me just give you a hard fact because you wanted one." Guess what the source of the 'hard fact' was? "The Treasury is estimating that the running costs of 250,000 extra places - which is what you want - would be £1.8 billion. From where?". She soon butted in again to repeat this 'hard fact' from the oh-so-very-honest Treasury: "These are extra places. £1.8 billion pounds for those extra places to create the choice...". Well might Mr Gove have commented, "Those are figures that have been produced by the Treasury. What they do in that report is they deliberately misunderstand our policy". Who'd have thought that of this government!!" He added "It's a Labour Party document" as Emily pressed him further. 'Hard fact' indeed!
Here's the whole of a post on ConservativeHome from Harry Phibbs:
Swedish school choice is working
There is a consensus in Sweden that their policy of school choice, introduced in 1992, has driven up standards. This has been the result of the expansion of independent schools from covering 1% to 10% of pupils. It is not just that the new schools have achieved good results but they have pulled up the results of the state schools competing with them.
However there is not unanimity in Sweden. Newsnight are pleased with themselves as they have got the top education bureaucrat in Sweden, a man called Per Thulberg, to tell them that the whole thing is a failure. But reading his paper, What influences education achievement in Swedish schools, upon which Newsnight based their report, one finds plenty of left wing assertions but not much in the way of solid evidence. There are general references to "research" showing this and that but no solid data. For instance the report says streaming in schools is a mistake because it has " a stigmatising effect."
Anyway the Burning out Money blog has done a very good rebuttal although I thought he was a bit unfair saying Michael Gove was "back-footed" by the BC attack. I thought old Govey did pretty well. If he had tried to quote the facts then Emily Maitlis would have thought he was very boring and shut him up.
BOM points out that the Swedish free schools get a Grade Point Average that is 20 points higher than the state schools.
What of the evidence of standards being driven up elsewhere?
A study by Anders Bohlmark and Mikael Lindahl of Stokholm University found that an increase in the percentage of free schools in an area increased pupil performance across all schools. Most of this increase was due to competition in the school sector, forcing all schools to improve their quality. Åsa Ahlin of Uppsala University found that a ten per cent increase in the number of children attending free schools led to a five per cent increase in Mathematics performance across the area.
See also this Bergstrom and Sandstrom study.
Maria Rankka of the Swedish think tank Timbro emails to say:
"Per Thulberg is wrong. There have been academic evaluations of the school voucher reform and the fact is that schools in geographical areas where competition exists are performing better than schools in areas where there still is no competition."
The Swedish Association of Independent Schools have more details on their website. What helps comparisons is that not everywhere in Sweden has the free schools system:
The proportion of students in independent schools has grown considerably since the beginning of the 90s, although the sector is still very small. In school year 1990-91, about 0.9 per cent of all
Swedish pupils in compulsory education (ages 6-15, approximately) were enrolled in independent schools, whereas in 2007-08 the figure had grown to about 9 per cent. The same trend may be observed in secondary education (ages 16-18, approximately), where the share has grown from 1.5 per cent to 17 per cent during the same period.
In about 210 of the 290 local councils in Sweden, independent schools “compete” with public schools run by locally elected school boards; as yet there are no independent schools in the other local councils. The urbanized areas of south and middle Sweden, in particular in the Greater Stockholm area, have the highest concentration of independent schools.
That makes it possible to judge the impact the free schools have on standards in the state schools.
Critics said that it is highly motivated parents who opt to take their children out of local council schools, thus leaving those schools with disadvantaged children, or that independent schools impose financial burdens on the school boards by disrupting their planning.
Where comparisons have been possible, independent schools have performed better in terms of knowledge and skills than local council schools, and have achieved this at a lower cost. This has inspired some local community schools to improve their organisation and teaching in order to improve results.
More can be found here at Burning Our Money: