Swedish free schools have no impact on achievement, research finds

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Children from better-off families make small gains in their educational performance in free schools in Sweden - the model for the UK's coalition Government policy - but the effect does not last and schools have no impact on the achievements of poor or immigrant children, according to new research.

The study throws into question the Government's claim that free schools have improved academic performance in Sweden. Rebecca Allen, a senior lecturer from the Institute of Education, analysed evidence of the impact of the reforms in Sweden and found that while children from highly-educated families made small gains in their academic performance at the end of lower secondary school, when they are 15 and 16, these benefits do not persist by the time they leave secondary school, and high school exit tests at 18 and 19 show no difference in their educational attainment.

Ms Allen said, 'The biggest beneficiaries are children from highly educated families; the impact on low educated families and immigrants is close to zero.'

She told Nursery World that while the analysis showed no real gains, 'it also shows that free schools aren't worse. We have a highly controlled education system. The lesson from Sweden is that before you start to introduce free schools you need to think about how to deregulate. In England we want children to have the same experiences regardless of where they go to school.'

She said the curriculum in Sweden had been restrictive but is now 'more high-level guidance', following a decision to deregulate the system so that schools are able to be different from each other.

The inspection system also changed in Sweden so that schools are inspected against whether they are meeting targets they have set themselves, she said.

Free schools in Sweden are also able to make a profit. Guidance on free schools published by the DfE said free schools are expected to be established on a non-profit-making basis.

Ms Allen questioned the extent to which schools would be free from the national curriculum, referring to the appointment by education secretary Michael Gove of historian Niall Ferguson, who has been asked to help draft the history curriculum.

'Michael Gove says he doesn't like the national curriculum, but that's because he doesn't like the content. He says schools will be free from the national curriculum. but then he appoints a "tsar" to sort out how history is taught.'

Ms Allen said she believed that Mr Gove's motivation for introducing free schools was an ideological one, based on not wanting local authorities to run schools.

Further information

    • 'Replicating Swedish "free school" reforms in England' is published in the journal Research in Public Policy, summer 2010.
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