Various commentators aiming to undermine the government’s free school programme have argued that recent research in Sweden suggests a decline in standards and increased segregation. It is interesting that critics have suddenly started to cite such research given that the overwhelming majority of studies display that the Swedish free school system has led to improvements. It is a bit like a punter claiming to be a master at betting on the horses when, after having already lost thousands of pounds, he finally wins back a tenner on a lucky nag.
So what does the evidence say? Regarding educational achievement and Swedish school competition, the academic research only covers grades given on standardised tests and the grade point average. This research displays unequivocally positive effects from free schools.
The paradox, then, is why Swedish pupils generally perform worse in international comparisons today compared to before the school choice reform. The paradox is resolved when it is realised that the argument that school competition has depreciated achievement in international tests is based on mere correlation. Achievement in those tests has fallen during the 1990s/2000s, which was the same period during which Sweden carried out education reforms. Critics of free schools simply ignore all other changes that occurred at the same time – which altered the way education was carried out in much more significant ways than the school choice reform. A key example that has been highlighted recently is the policy influence of educationalists, who have been allowed to implement pedagogical experiments without proper academic grounding. A majority of Sweden’s leading educationalists consider tests and other forms of measuring student achievement, as well as ‘teacher-centred education’, harmful – which have been reflected in education reforms. Interestingly, 65% of Swedish education professors have not been cited in any acknowledged publication outside of Sweden in the past 10 years.
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