Nick Clegg MPJust like that: Nick Clegg MP plays with the facts (pic Wikimedia Commons)When deputy prime minister Nick Clegg MP recently claimed on Channel 4 News that the Coalition Government would not be “taking resources, and people and attention away from [other] schools” he touched on a raw nerve for anyone involved in schools ICT. Because his statement was patently untrue.

Education secretary Michael Gove MP kickstarted his Free Schools with £50 million pounds snatched from Harnessing Technology funding previously earmarked for schools ICT. And the decision was called into question at a recent Westminster Forum event “Academies and 'free schools' – the next steps for policy” by a devastating critique of independent research into Swedish Free Schools by Dr Susanne Wiborg, head of International and Lifelong Education at the Institute of Education.

The most positive thing she could find to say about the Swedish experience was this: “In a recent study by Böhlmark and Lindahl from 2008, analysing variation in school outcomes in different municipalities over time, and controlling for other pre-reform and concurrent municipality trends, they find that an increase in the free school share of municipality school students moderately improves short-term educational outcomes at age 15-16 years, but this is not translated into greater achievements later in life as they score no better in the final exams in upper secondary education at the age of 18/19. Therefore, the short-term effect is too small to yield any long-term positive effects for young people.”

After a worryingly negative exploration of insights that showed that private companies rather than parents were driving the programme, and that one overall effect was increased social division, she delivered the following conclusion.

'Private providers the main beneficiaries of Swedish free schools, not  pupils'

“In respect to social segregation, the NEA has shown in a number of studies as well as academic research that the use of school choice has indeed augmented social and ethnic segregation, particularly in relation to schools in deprived areas. There is thus a broad consensus within the research community that housing segregation is, in fact, the primary source of segregation in Sweden, however, it has been firmly established that this has been exacerbated by school choice.

“On the basis of this wide-ranging research, it can be concluded that private providers are the main beneficiaries of the Swedish free school policy, not the pupils as they have not obtained significant learning gains overall. At the same time the Swedish Free Schools, albeit on a small scale, appear to have increased social inequality, even in the context of this very egalitarian education system.

“The Swedish research therefore begs the questions:
1) Is more choice desirable if Free Schools do not reconcile high academic standards and social integration?
2) Will English [people] really be interested in running schools? Like in Sweden, it seems more likely the schools will be run by private companies, and
3) Should Swedish companies be allowed to run schools in England when they cannot produce outstanding results?”

The next speaker at the Westminster Forum, journalist Toby Young who is leading a proposed Free School in West London, neatly swerved around the Swedish wreckage by saying it was “misleading to try and judge the success of the Swedish free school innovations on a system wide basis” as the UK model was more based on US charter schools. And it would also be wrong to make system-wide judgements of US charter schools as these should only be judged school by school. In his daily Telegraph blog he subsequently went on to mention Dr Wiborg alongside an attack on the Institute of Education (“this repository of Left-wing claptrap”), but with no rebuttal of the evidence.

While Toby Young’s defence might have been anticipated it does nothing to further the education secretary’s pledge that all government policy will be based on evidence. Because the evidence concerning US charter schools has also been underwhelming.

'Students in charter schools not faring as well as students in traditional public schools'

This is the introduction to the press release for Stanford University’s charter school report issued in 2009: “A new report issued today by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that there is a wide variance in the quality of the nation’s several thousand charter schools with, in the aggregate, students in charter schools not faring as well as students in traditional public schools.” The full report is available here.

Of course none of this research means that there are no good Swedish Free Schools or US charter schools, or that individual schools have not made significant gains for their students. Far from it. But the only substantial answer to the research that emerged from Toby Young and Anders Hultin, an acknowledged “ambassador” for Swedish Free Schools who is now Pearson UK’s managing director for school improvement, at the Westminster Forum was that increased parent choice had to be a good thing for UK schools.

Whether this justifies taking £50 million from the Harnessing Technology fund is something that might perhaps be better decided by bookmakers. They could probably provide the education secretary with more convincing evidence of successful outcomes – “form" in their lingo – than he could ever garner from the research into free schools. But taxpayers might baulk at the idea that he could get a better return for their £50 million on the 4.30 in Doncaster.

More information

For more about Westminster Forums education events go to:
Full transcripts are available to attendees following the events.
“Special Educational Needs - next steps” takes place on November 2 at The Royal Society, London.
You can listen to Dr Susanne Wiborg’s and Toby Young's presentation's here.

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