The Telegraph: Schools revolution needs the profit motive

The Swedish model shows that the Tories can be even bolder, says Anders Hultin.
By Andrew Hultin. Published: The Telegraph. 6:18AM BST 02 Oct 2009

At the heart of the Conservative reform agenda – and perhaps its single most radical element – is the idea, borrowed from Sweden, that parents who are unhappy with their child’s education should be allowed to create new schools.

It is a plan that has the potential to transform education in Britain – but already, the same doubts are being raised that I heard in Sweden back in 1992, as an adviser in the education and science department. Who on earth, we were asked, would want to set up their own school? Surely low-income parents don’t want choice – they just want their local school to improve?

The opposing parties thought the policy such a dud that they didn’t even bother to attack it. Even we had our doubts. Our proposal was fairly simple: anyone could set up a school, and be paid the same per pupil as state institutions (actually, to begin with, a bit less). But in our heart of hearts, we did not expect a rush of applicants. This is a symbolic policy, I was told by a colleague. It was in our manifesto, so we have to honour it.

Perhaps governments should have a bit more faith in the people whose lives they seek to organise – because once we put our “symbolic” policy into practice, and handed power from government to communities, the effect was extraordinary. A thousand flowers bloomed. Or, more accurately, the number of independent schools grew from 80 to 1,100 – educating 10 per cent of all pupils in compulsory education and 20 per cent of sixth-formers. The drive and energy came from outside government: we in the education department just paid the bills. This, perhaps, explains the success: it was a grassroots revolution. Where communities were unhappy with their school, they did not need to petition parliament or local government. They could find a school provider, and set up a new one.
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The ability to innovate like this would be welcomed as long as there is associated freedom to establish educational beliefs and philosophies as well. If the same command and control policies, curricular and assessment constraints perpetuate there will be little difference.

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