Research trip to Sweden

Just back from a trip to Sweden to check out a couple of “free schools”. I was accompanied by my wife, Caroline, and Charlie Ben-Nathan, the Director of Academic Management at Latymer Upper School who is also acting as the curriculum guru for the West London Free School.

We saw two schools, IES Eskilstuna and Kunskapsskolan Enskede. As “free schools” they are entirely funded by the Swedish state, but not run by local councils, much like Academies in Britain. The Swedish equivalent of local authority maintained schools are “municipal schools” and these sit alongside “free schools”, often cooperating with each other as well as competing. Since the “free school” reforms were introduced in Sweden by the 1991-94 conservative government, they have been accepted by all political parties (bar the Communist Party) and today approximately 20 per cent of Swedish children of secondary school age (12-19) are educated at “free schools”. This figure rises to 50 per cent in large cities like Stockholm.

The effect of “free schools” on “municipal schools” is almost as controversial an issue in Sweden as the likely effect of “free schools” on comprehensives is here. Have they lowered or increased standards?

I had the opportunity to talk to two senior figures about this, Odd Eiken, the Swedish politician who was Secretary of State for Education in the 1991-94 government, and Per Thurlberg, the Director-General of the Swedish National Agency for Education.

Odd Eiken, who now works for Kunskapsskolan, maintains that in those areas where “free schools” have opened, the level of attainment at “municipal schools” has gone up; Per Thurlberg claims the overall level of attainment in Sweden has declined since the mide-90s.

The issue partly turns on how you measure attainment. Thurlberg accepts that students in “municipal schools” are now achieving higher marks than they were before “free schools” entered the picture, but attributes this to “grade inflation”. He prefers to measure attainment according to Sweden’s ranking in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) league tables, which tests the reading and numeracy of 15-year-olds. By that measure, academic attainment has declined since 1991, ie, Sweden has dropped in the world rankings, even if the grades of Swedish schoolchildren have improved. In response, Odd Eiken points out that it isn’t just Sweden that’s fallen in the PISA league tables; nearly every European country has fallen, thanks to the huge leaps and bounds being made in South Korea and Taiwan. If you take these new entrants out of the table, standards in Sweden haven’t declined compared to other countries.

Odd Eiken doesn’t set too much store by this issue and points out that it’s impossible to say with any certainty what effect “free schools” have had on “municipal schools” or Swedish children’s overall level of academic attainment since we don’t have an alternative Swedish reality in which “free schools” don’t exist to compare the current situation with. He prefers to judge the success or failure of the policy according to whether Swedish parents now have more choice about where to educate their children and, by that measure, even Per Thurlberg accepts that the “free school” reforms have been a success. Odd Eiken has three children himself and he sends them to three different schools, two of them “free schools” and the third a “municipal school”.

If you want to read more on this topic, I blogged about it here.

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The two “free schools” we visited were very different, but both equally impressive. IES and Kunskapksskolan are private companies -- that is, they’re in the profit-making business -- and, together, they run the most successful schools in Sweden. IES has 20 and Kunskapsskolan 34. They lease all the buildings their schools are in; they don’t own a single one. When I asked executives in both companies about this they came up with the same answer: “We’re in the education business, not the property business.”

The way it works is that if they think there’s sufficient demand for a “free school” in a particularly area they’ll find a suitable building -- often a disused school -- and get the property company that owns the building (or the local council if it’s a municipal building) to refit it according to their specifications and then lease it to them for 10-15 years, building the cost of the refit into the lease. Both companies have teams of architects they work closely with who oversee the refits. Being private companies, they don’t have any difficulty securing 10-15-year leases. If the West London Free School ends up leasing a school building -- and I suspect we will -- we may find it more difficult to persuade a property company of our financial dependability given that we’ll be a charitable trust dependent on receiving a buildings allowance from the government to pay the annual rent. (In our own internal discussions about this, we refer to it as the “covenant strength” issue.)

Both schools were quite small -- smaller than the average British comprehensive. That partly reflects the fact that they were both “middle schools”, that is, for 12-16-year-olds, and only included four separate year groups. But even taking that into account, they were still small, being the equivalent to 4FE British schools (ie, 4 x 30 students admitted per year).

IES Eskilstuna has 586 students, while Kunskapsskolan Enskede has 500. IES Eskilstuna was in a 19th Century school building that encompassed 4,500 sq metres (48,438 sq ft), and Kunskapsskolan Enskede was in a former social security office encompassing 3,000 sq metres (32,291 sq ft).

In Sweden, children start school at the age of seven and are all taught the Swedish national curriculum until the age of 16 at which point they can start specialising. (In Britain, by contrast, students can start specialising at 14.) At the 12-16 level, this means every child must study 17 subjects -- Swedish, English, Geography, History, RS, The Sciences (though these are taught in a far less practical and intensive way that in the UK), Maths, Art, Music, Technology, PE, Civics, Crafts (Woodwork and Textiles), Home Economics and a Modern Foreign Language. They are both continually assessed and examined in all subjects, receiving a mark out of a possible 320 at the age of 16.

IES Eskilstuna was in many ways like an old-fashioned English grammar school. Classes of approximately 26 children sat in rows staring up at a teacher standing in front of a blackboard. (This is known as “traditional pedagogy”.) They don’t stream or set, enabling the school to keep classes of children together as they progress. This also enables them to stagger the start times of different year groups so the school’s 586 students are only all in the school at the same time in the middle of the day. In other words, not streaming or setting enables them to make more economical use of space -- though the staff we spoke to disputed that this was the reason for not doing so. They maintained that teaching students in mixed ability classes brings up the overall level of attainment without hampering the progress of the most able. Having said that, they do allow their “gifted and talented” students to sit IGCSEs in a range of subjects, depending on how able they are, and about 50 students at the school were doing IGCSEs. So, in effect, they have a top set in some subjects -- those students doing both the Swedish national curriculum and at one or more IGCSEs -- but no middle or bottom set. And the students doing IGCSEs aren’t segregated from the rest of the class. (IGCSEs are like old-fashioned O-levels, with a student being marked entirely on the strength of his or her performance in a final exam. No continuous assessment. University admission tutors regard them as one grade harder than GCSEs, so if a student has a B in IGCSE English that’s the equivalent of an A in GCSE English. I’m strongly in favour of teaching IGCSEs at the West London Free School, a practice adopted by most independent schools.)

IES Eskilstuna was like an old-fashioned grammar school in other ways, too. There’s a strong emphasis on discipline, something the school refers to as “tough love”. Damian Brunker, Academic Manager of all the schools in the group, teaches at Eskilstuna and as we entered each classroom the children leapt to their feet and said, “Good morning, Mr Brunker.” He proudly pointed out that there was no litter or graffiti in the school and, walking around its pristine corridors and seeing it’s neat rows of well-behaved children, it was impossible not to be impressed.

Pastoral care is a big part of the IES package and the staff we met were evangelical in their belief in the importance of strong pastoral care. Each member of staff is responsible for 16 students and becomes, in effect, their personal tutor for the four years they’re at the school. If a student doesn’t turn up to school, and no excuse has been forthcoming, it’s not uncommon for that student’s tutor to stop by their house to find out why they haven’t come to school.

This level of involvement in the children’s lives was something the staff liked about the school -- they are emotionally invested in the welfare of their tutees and this clearly adds to their job satisfaction. The children also appreciated it, too. We spoke to a group of children, all of them on the student council, and they said the reason they liked the school so much was because the staff “care” so much about them.

Parents have a role, too. IES has a web portal called SchoolSoft that enables parents to track their child’s progress, checking his or her attendance record, seeing what marks they got in recent tests, etc.

We were all impressed by IES Eskilstuna. It was particularly heartening to discover that a school modelled on an old-fashioned English grammar (strong discipline, traditional pedagogy, emphasis on academic attainment, excellent pastoral care), but with a mixed ability intake, can clearly work so well. Of all the school providers in Sweden, including “municipal schools”, IES has the best academic track record -- and IES Eskilstuna is the highest-performing school in the group. As far as we could tell, this isn’t because the school’s intake is disproportionately middle class, either. I asked all the staff and children we met whether the school was genuinely “comprehensive” and they confirmed that it was. Looking at the faces and clothes of the children, it seemed to be as ethnically and socially mixed as a typical rural comprehensive -- and Eskilstuna is known as “the Sheffield of Sweden”. So it’s ability to achieve outstanding academic results with children of mixed ability cannot be ascribed to a skewed intake.

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Kunskapsskolan Enskede could not have been more different, but, in its own way, equally impressive. It’s in a fairly socially deprived part of Stockholm with a large immigrant population -- so, again, by no means a middle class school. It has approximately 500 students and the building they occupy doesn’t look like a conventional school. It was on three floors, with a dining area and lecture theatre, as well as the Principal’s office, on the ground floor, and a combination of classrooms and “work stations” on the upper floors.

Kunskapsskolan Enskede, like all Swedish middle schools, has to teach the Swedish national curriculum. However, it eschews traditional pedagogy in favour of a much more personalized approach. The group’s philosophy is that every child is different and that a school should be designed in such a way that every child can choose how they want the national curriculum to be delivered.

All Kunskapsskolan schools divide the 17 subjects that comprise the Swedish national curriculum into two groups, with Swedish, Maths, Science, English and an additional Modern Foreign Language (French, German or Spanish) on one side, and the remaining 12 subjects on the other. The five core subjects are then divided into 35 steps and children can work through the steps as quickly as they are able on the understanding that they will at least reach step 20 in all five subjects (the minimum passing grade). This means that some students will spend all four years getting up to step 20, while others will motor through all 35 steps in three years or less.

When it comes to learning all the subjects, including these five, the students are expected to study by themselves -- either in a workstation or at home -- or in small groups. Some classroom learning does take place and the children attend lectures given by outside speakers as well, but the majority of the learning gets done outside the classroom.

Like IES Eskilstuna, each student has a personal tutor and they meet with their tutors for 15 minutes each week. During these tutorials they devise a learning programme for themselves, setting goals for the week, the term and the year. If they start falling short of these goals, their tutors will want to know why and will either push them to achieve more or help them devise a less demanding programme. The students write down their goals and track their progress in individual log books.

Kunskapksskolan has a similar web portal to IES, allowing parents to track the progress of their children. But it also has a Parents Advisory Council which meets with the Principal twice a term.

Walking round Kunskapsskolan Enskede, the atmosphere was very different to IES Eskilstuna. Children were milling about in study areas, listing to iPods, and didn’t even glance up when a teacher entered their airspace. At first, it seemed a bit chaotic, as though the children were just in the building to “hang out” rather than learn, but appearances were deceptive. When we spoke to some children they said that while they don’t always take advantage of the “workstations” to actually study, they nevertheless learn more effectively than at a typical “municipal school”. They clearly enjoyed the freedom and flexibility this pedagogic model gives them -- and academic results indicate that it works. Attainment levels at Kunskappskolan schools are, on average, 15 per cent higher than the Swedish national average -- and, as with IES, it would be unfair to attribute this to a middle-class intake.

One aspect of Kunskapsskolan Enskede that Charlie and Caroline liked was that some subjects are taught thematically, with plenty of “joined-up” thinking. So the students might to a ‘Me’ course, for instance, that brings together civics, home economics and biology. This was much less of a feature of the more traditional IES school.

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One of the reasons for visiting these two schools was to see if we think either company might be a suitable partner for the West London Free School going forward. We haven’t decided whether we want to operate our school post-set-up ourselves, but if we decide we don’t then contracting out the operation of the school to either IES or Kunskapsskolan would be an attractive option, not least because of the expertise they both possess when it comes to leasing school buildings. Indeed, it’s possible that one of them could lease a building and sub-let it to the charitable trust running the school, thereby avoiding the “covenant strength” issue. They would, in effect, be providing us with a building as well as operating our school. Another advantage of being in partnership with either of these established providers is that it would enable us reassure the DCSF that our school will be run properly. One concern the DCSF have is around sustainability. Would a parent-sponsored Academy continue to thrive after the initial cohort of parents had put their children through the school? Being in partnership with a respectable provider, with a proven track record, would allay that fear.

Of course, there are other providers out there, too, and I’ve been meeting with them -- and will continue to meet with them. If we do decide to go into partnership with an existing provider, we may yet find one we like even more than IES or Kunskapsskolan. But I cannot emphasize more strongly how impressive they both were.

Trying to choose between them is an interesting exercise, albeit a hypothetical one at this stage. Among other things, neither company has said it would like to work with us, but both companies are in the process of entering the British market, with Kunskapsskolan being further along. Kunskapsskolan is sponsoring five Academies, two of which are opening this year.

When thinking about which pedagogic approach would work best -- traditional or personalized -- we ought to bear in mind that British children may be less well-behaved than their Swedish counterparts -- though this was something vigorously disputed by staff at both schools. I think it’s safe to assume that because Britain is a more unequal society than Sweden, the children at the most under-privileged end of the scale in the UK will be significantly more socially deprived than their Swedish equivalents. At one point, I asked a member of staff at IES what percentage of the school’s children were eligible for free school meals and she said that, in Sweden, all children are eligible for free school meals. But it’s a safe bet that at least 20 per cent of the children in the West London Free School will be eligible for free school meals. (The figure for Acton High School is 40 per cent, while at Twyford it’s eight percent and at Chiswick Community School it’s 25 per cent.)

Would such children be able to cope in either school? Would either school be able to cope with such children? How would IES, for instance, deal with a child who couldn’t read or write? And would Kunskapsskolan expect children with chaotic home lives to be self-starters, working under their own steam in a largely unsupervised environment?

Putting these practical problems to one side -- and I expect they’d be soluble by introducing such things as remedial programmes, additional support, etc -- there is the whole streaming and setting issue. IES has a top set, but no middle or bottom set, while Kunskapsskolan has, in effect, as many sets as there are children at the school.

On the face of it, the Kunskapsskolan model would appear to be better for us. A very diverse intake from a social point of view will probable mean an equally diverse intake from an intellectual point of view and allowing all children to design their own learning programme -- Kunskapsskolan doesn’t like the phrase “learn at their own pace” -- will mean we’ll be able to cope with that variety. But my worry is that children from under-privileged backgrounds, particularly those with little home support, wouldn’t be pushed as hard as they need to be in a Kunskapsskolan school. If the aim of our school is to maximize the academic attainment of all the children, not just the most intellectually gifted, the IES model begins to look more attractive since there’s a built-in expectation that every child will reach quite a high minimum standard. In fairness to Kunskapsskolan, they claim that children are pushed hard at their schools, too, with personal tutors setting ambitious targets for all their students, regardless of ability.

What it really boils down to is whether you think the children at our school would benefit from a traditional approach to learning -- chalk and talk -- or a more personalized one. And that, in turn, will probably hinge on how you think your own children would respond. In the case of my four, my daughter would probably respond better to the IES model, while my three sons might respond better to the Kunskapsskolan model. On the other hand, they'd certainly benefit from the discipline at the IES school! I'd be interested to hear other people's views on this subject.

Anyway, it was a tremendously stimulating trip and we were lucky to be allowed access to two such fine schools. The bottom line is if we end up with a school anywhere near as good as these two -- whether in partnership with either company or not -- we’ll be in great shape.