By Kevin Courtney NUT deputy General Secretary on Comment is Free in the Guardian on Wednesday 30th May
The secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, used his appearance at yesterday’s Leveson inquiry to fly a kite for free schools to be allowed to make a profit if the Conservatives win a second term.
Of course, this doesn’t represent a fundamental change in Conservative thinking since Gove said some time ago that he had “no ideological objection” to free school providers making a profit from running such schools.
Nor does it come as any surprise to the National Union of Teachers, as our union has said all along that these schools were Trojan horses for for-profit providers entering the English education system. Once free-school backers are allowed to profit then so too will the growing number of academy proprietors.
However, Gove’s statement should send a warning signal to parents. The public needs to be aware where the privatisation route that Gove and his fellow Conservatives are seeking to take England’s education system will inevitably lead.
In Sweden, where the free schools experiment originated in the early 1990s, the news is not good. Sweden has slipped dramatically down theProgramme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings and there is clear evidence that free schools have increased educational and social segregation.
A 2010 report on Swedish education published by Skolverket, the Swedish national agency for education, stated that: “Results from Pisa 2009 shows that the Swedish 15-year-olds’ reading comprehension and skills in mathematics and science have declined in the 2000s. In reading comprehension and mathematics Swedish 15-year-olds perform on average when compared to other OECD countries. In previous Pisa studies, Swedish students performed above average. In reading comprehension nearly one fifth of the Swedish students do not reach up to the level of knowledge that the OECD believes is essential for continued learning. In science Swedish students for the first time perform below the worldwide average.”
It went on to state that: “In equivalence Sweden is now an average country according to Pisa 2009. The main reason for the relative decline between 2000 and 2009 is that the equivalence in Sweden has deteriorated. The differences between high and low performing students have increased, the differences between high and low performing schools have increased and the importance of socioeconomic background have strengthened.”
SNS, a prominent business-funded thinktank, issued a report in September 2011 that ran counter to its usual pro-market stance. It concluded that the entry of private operators into state-funded education had increased segregation and may not have improved educational standards.
The report’s author, Jonas Vlachos, an associate professor of economics at Stockholm University, found that students who entered gymnasium [sixth form] from free secondary schools on average went on to get lower grades over the next three years than those who had entered with the same grade from municipal secondary schools.
In February last year, Sweden’s education minister, Jan Björklund, conceded that there were several indications that in many privately run, publicly funded free schools, profit takes precedence over quality.
The Skolverket report provides clues to how these profits are made. While 86% of teachers in Sweden’s municipal-run compulsory-age schools (aged seven to 16) had teacher training qualifications, the figure for free schools was just 67%. And while the teacher/pupil ratio in municipal upper secondary schools was 8.4 per 100 pupils and 11 in county council schools, it was just 7 in free schools.
As in Sweden, Gove is allowing free schools in England to employ unqualified teachers who are outside national pay and conditions arrangements, to determine their own curriculum and to set up in premises without the usual educational facilities offered by state schools. It is clear where the profits will be made, at the expense of our children’s education.
The lessons from Sweden are plain to see and we should ignore them at our peril. However, its Scandinavian neighbour Finland provides an example of a schools system which has dramatically improved its international standing not by market experiments but by increasing the morale, the training and the trust shown in its teachers.