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Social justice
22 November 2012

Proof that free schools raise standards for everybody

Sweden used to be a beacon of hope for social democrats, now it is more often the inspiration of reformist conservatives – not least in respect of its free schools.

In Britain, the first free schools are only just opening their doors, but in Sweden they’ve been around for years, with almost 400 now established in a country of less than ten million people. What’s more the Swedes have been carefully studying the impact of these schools on the whole population. In an important blog for the Spectator, Fraser Nelson reviews the results:  

  • "…Growth of free schools has led to better high school grades & university participation, even accounting for other factors such as grade inflation. 
  • "…Crucially, state school pupils seem to benefit about as much as independent school ones. When ‘bog standard comprehensive’ face new tougher competition, they shape up. They know they’ll lose pupils if they don’t. As the researchers put it: ‘these positive effects are primarily due to spill-over or competition effects and not that independent-school students gain significantly more than public school students.’ 
  • "…Free schools have produced better results on the same budget. Their success cannot be put down to cash. Or, as they say, ‘We are also able to show that a higher share of independent-school students in the municipality has not generated increased school expenditures.’" 

So free schools work for everybody, not just those who attend them. That, however, is not the only lesson to be learned here.

Firstly, there’s the importance of basing government policy on hard evidence: 

  • "The survey was large: every Swedish pupil who finished school between 1988 and 2009. The researchers were able to look at grades and test score outcomes, and — crucially — follow the students as they grow older. This allowed them to ‘look at the effects on long-run outcomes such as high-school grades, university attendance and years of schooling.’" 

"In Sweden, they don’t have to guess", says Fraser Nelson. We should stop guessing in this country too. Throwing billions at various government programmes without systematically assessing the evidence for their effectiveness is obvious lunacy. The under-reported efforts of the current British Government to end to this thrashing about in the dark may turn out to be one of its most important legacies.

Of course, evidence requires experiments – and Fraser Nelson emphasises the importance of getting free schools off the ground in the first place: 

  • "Nick Pearce from the IPPR tweets that this study shows non-profit schools doing just as well as profit-seeking ones. So why do I call for profit-making schools? The answer is simple: profit-seeking schools expand far more quickly." 

But perhaps the most important lesson of all is that meaningful reforms require patience. Here’s a direct quote from the report (.pdf) itself: 

  • "Notably, because it has taken time for the independent schools to become more than a marginal phenomenon in Sweden, we have only been able to detect statistically significant positive effects for later years (about a decade after the reform)." 

Important reforms often get off to an awkward start – the election of Police and Crime Commissioners being a recent example. However, instead of the flaky reaction we’ve seen from some quarters of the Conservative Party, we need to realise that patience – much like reform – requires careful cultivation.


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