The idea of ‘free schools’ was imported from Sweden where they were introduced in the early 1990s. So, are they the answer?
If you consulted the New Schools Network you would certainly think so. They state quite boldly, “They improve results.” They go on to cite what, on the face of it, seems like convincing evidence including better ‘grades’, evidence that competition offered by free schools improves all schools and, less convincing perhaps, that parents are happier with these schools and think they are a good idea. However, the NSN is, of course, a government-funded quango run by Michael Gove’s former assistant and staffed by various former employees of the Conservative Party so, as someone once said in a different context, “They would say that, wouldn’t they?”
The most helpful piece of work in this area was done by Rebecca Allen of London University’s Institute of Education, who, in June 2010, just after Gove had initiated the policy, did a survey of research in Sweden into the free school system. The study she found most reliable, by Böhlmark and Lindahl was, coincidentally, the same one referenced by NSN but, from her neutral academic standpoint, Allen reads the research somewhat differently. The study certainly found a ‘moderately positive impact’ to the end of what we would call Key Stage 4 (age 15/16). But the improvement did not translate into greater success later on. The researchers concluded that “educational advantages of school competition….were too small to persist into any long-term gains.”
An even more critical report was issued just last September and came, surprisingly, from a business-funded ‘think-tank’ in Sweden, SNS. The author, Dr. Vlachos, said, “Empirical evidence showing that competition is good is not really credible because they can’t distinguish between grade inflation and real gains….. There’s been tremendous grade inflation in Swedish schools,” because, it turns out, students’ work in Sweden is not marked externally and Dr Vachlos suggested free schools may be more generous. This report also notes that students from free schools did less well than expected when they progressed to ‘sixth form’ compared to their municipal school counterparts, further suggesting that their earlier grades had been inflated.
There have been concerns in Sweden since 2009 when the country was seen to have dropped down the international league tables for literacy, maths and science. ‘The Local’, an online Swedish newspaper, in English, voiced a number of other worries, in September 2012. As the cohort numbers are shrinking currently in Sweden, free schools, subject to ‘market forces’, are facing a bleak economic future: what happens to the children if the school is forced to close? Other side effects of the free school system have been a proliferation of media and arts courses, reacting to the ‘market forces’ of customer demand rather than the economic needs of the country, and segregation of students in certain areas.
On such inconclusive evidence, would you rush to implement such a system, with the inevitable upheaval, cost and risk? Not unless you had an ideological reason for favouring such a ‘market’ solution, no, you wouldn’t. But then, you’re not Michael Gove (presumably)!