Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
Image of Hilary Wilce

The Quandary - 25 Jun 2009

What’s so great about schools in Sweden? Are they really so good we should copy them?

Hillary's Advice

I’m just off to Copenhagen, so this feels like a good time to consider our neighbours, the Sainted Scandinavians.

Like all education journalists, I have had my ear bashed repeatedly about the many wonders of this region’s schooling systems, from Finland’s fabulous primary schools to the miracles of Danish kindergartens. The current darling is Sweden’s system of state-funded independent schools, and if the Conservatives get in at the next election (if?), we will apparently be seeing lots of these ‘free schools’ over here.

The schools, like our Academies, have the freedom to do their own thing while broadly staying in line with the mainstream curriculum, although a big difference is that for-profit companies are allowed to run them. The schools get good results, and pupils and parents seem to like them.

But the schools appear to be able to screen out at least some children with special needs, and it’s hard to say how much of their success stems from attracting in middle-class families -- and thereby increasing the kind of educational apartheid that is so harmful to poorer pupils and to society in general.

So the short answer to your question is that there are NO magic solutions in education, and it is no good looking for them. Every incoming politician should be forced to write this out a hundred times. Scandinavian countries invest heavily in their school systems and have cohesive cultures with relatively low gaps between their highest and lowest earners. These things are the true bedrock of their flourishing educational systems, not anything else.