UK schools need Swedish lessons

agosto 14, 2008

Pubblicato In: Articoli Correlati

The UK, a country famous for its love of tradition, has begun one of its summer rituals. Every year, just as the grouse-shooting season starts, there is a mass outbreak of grousing about school exams not being as hard as they used to be.
Results from the A-level exams, taken by school leavers at 18, were released on Thursday. It is increasingly difficult to tell top students apart because one-quarter of all papers now receive the maximum A grade. Part of the problem is that A-levels are used to judge the performance of the government, of schools and of children. It is unsurprising that it measures none of their performances very well.

This aspect of the problem could be dealt with easily. The people with the greatest incentive for accuracy in grades are universities and colleges, so they should be given control of the exam system. But the debate about exam results misses the big picture.
Educational systems vary between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but they should all receive a failing grade. They get mediocre results on international tests and they all widen, rather than narrow, the gap between the poor and the middle class. Although Britain has an open economy and society, its social mobility is rigid. This is more than a moral dilemma, it is a huge economic problem.
A great number of young British people leave school lacking basic numeracy and literacy and, even in the recent period of record growth, have tended to drift directly into unemployment. This is a scandal. The British school system needs a radical overhaul.
The leading light in school reform is Sweden. The education system there is funded by vouchers. If parents wish to change school, they have the right to do so, and to take state funding with them. Schools must compete with one another to attract pupils. Any education provider has the right to set up a new school. Competition between schools is the key.
Despite endless cant about “choice”, the UK educational system stifles competition. In most areas of the country, local schools are closely controlled by a single local educational authority. They are cartels that actively prevent schools from competing.
In Sweden, good schools can expand and anyone can set one up. Both are technically possible in the UK, but local government rules advise against them if they mean more unfilled places at local schools. Banning the creation of extra places guarantees that children at bad schools have nowhere to go and stamps out competition.

Mechanisms for paying good teachers more than bad teachers and rewarding rarer skills (such as maths and science) are also too weak. Effective educational reform should mean an end to uniform national pay deals for teachers.
The evidence suggests that adopting the Swedish model would make the average UK school better, and lift weaker schools most of all. The opposition Conservative party has pledged to introduce it. But the challenge for any party bent on real reform is how to get there and still get elected. Sharp shocks that destabilise the system could turn parents and teachers against change.
School management must be dealt with carefully. British schools are, at the moment, incapable of running themselves and third party providers do not yet have the capacity to take many over. Expanding the City Academies programme must be part of the answer to how we achieve a network of independent schools. The academies scheme was a Tony Blair-era innovation that allowed private providers to take over individual failing state schools, as a way to inject competition into educationally backward areas. The Tories are right to have identified a big expansion of academies as a means of moving Britain closer to the Swedish model at a pace the sector can handle.
Their liberal position contrasts sharply with that of Ed Balls, schools secretary, who has reduced the academies’ freedoms and is setting them up under the control of the local cartels with which they are supposed to compete. Mr Balls is pandering shamefully to the left.
Allowing schools to decide on teachers’ pay will, at some stage, mean a confrontation with the unions. The government will probably need to increase school spending to cushion the cost of far-reaching reform, but also to counter union charges that this is slashing and burning public services.
While Conservative economic proposals are tainted with populism, their plans for schools and skills are on the right track. The state of British schools is little short of a national disgrace. Mr Balls still has time to avoid going down as the man who missed the reform boat.

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