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Perils of the Swedish model

The stakes are being raised between those cheering on Tory proposals for “free” (read for the privileged few) education – and those who believe in the principles of equal, universal and free access to education.

Leading the charge to endorse what the Tory shadow education minister calls the “Swedish model” of “free” schools – is one Toby Young.

Young, who has attended Oxford, Harvard and Cambridge universities, says he wants to adopt the Tory notion of a new-style school for his four children, because, in his view, “comprehensives let down some pupils” especially himself. He made his proclamation in yesterday’s The Observer. Young’s glowing endorsement of “free schools” follows revelations of an ever more yawning class and wealth divide after the publication of A-level results last Thursday. The exam results showed a record number of pupils achieving A-level results, but with a record gap in their “class distribution” .

Pupils at state schools have fallen way behind in the fierce competition for A level grades which are essential to secure university places. More than 50% of A-levels taken by privately educated pupils scored an A compared with 20% of those in comprehensives.

Last year, the chasm between privately-educated pupils and comprehensives stood at 31% of privately-educated pupils achieving triple ‘A’ scores, as against 26% of selective grammar schools and 7.7% in comprehensives. Studies at Buckingham University and one by Cambridge Assessment (which runs three exam boards) last week revealed what amounts to a collapse of some state schools. Pupils are not being entered for subjects like A-level physics, history, science, geography or languages because it is thought they are unlikely to pass them.

Toby Young’s father Michael, who founded the Open University, coined the word “meritocracy” in his futuristic 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy. In it he argued that the vested interests of the middle classes would undermine the movement to establish comprehensive education. Michael Young latterly asked former PM Blair to drop the word “meritocracy” from his vocabulary.

“It is ironic, says Michael Pyke, of the Campaign for State Education, “that Michael Young’s son would help make his father’s prediction come true. Toby Young is from an extremely privileged background. For him to blame comprehensives for his failure to get O-levels is frankly dishonest. All research shows that such pupils do extremely well at comprehensives. Measured outcomes of school performance are determined 85% by parental background.”

In Pyke’s view, the success of independent schools is no mystery. “Resources are an important factor in success. A school with teachers and pupils who have the time and resources to research the methodology of exam boards can maximise their marks. In my view coaching is on the way to replacing education. The independent sector has doubled fees over the last 20 years but not the intake of pupils. Rich people are focusing their wealth on educating their children.”

As with New Labour’s ‘academies’, those who suffer from “free” schools being set up are existing public authority schools – this is already the case in Sweden. “Children are a crucial resource in schools,” says Pyke. “Concentrating the most aspirational children in new schools is robbing state schools of those who encourage others to do well,” Pyke explains.

The stark truth is that behind the “discovery” of the Swedish model is the desire to rob the public purse to fund the education of the rich and the upper middle classes. Much as we have seen Brown and Darling do with the banking bail-out. The only thing free about the Cameron-Young plan for schools is the freedom of the well-educated rich to exploit the rest of society to benefit their offspring, while the poor sink ever lower in the education stakes.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
24 August 2009

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