Data from Sweden suggests that vouchers could offer the government a truly equitable way of combining its educational ideals with pragmatismby David G Green / November 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
The government recently came in for sharp criticism for stealing Tory policies on inheritance tax. But instead of being embarrassed, it should brazenly steal a few more, particularly the Swedish-style education vouchers hinted at by Tory education spokesman, Michael Gove. Modern politicians should be pragmatic problem solvers, not tribal loyalists who banish good ideas just because of their provenance.
During his September conference speech Gordon Brown declared that he was for a “genuinely meritocratic Britain.” He was against the “old equality of outcome that discounts hard work and effort.” “No matter where you come from,” his message was “if you try hard, we will help you make the most of your talents.”
Unfortunately the measures mentioned in the speech did not quite match the hopes expressed. For how much longer must we go on trying to provide equal opportunity through monopoly schools run by local authorities under close Whitehall supervision? This approach has had a fair trial of several decades. It hasn’t worked. Numerous independent observers accept that educational attainments have been falling. Worse still, children from the least advantaged backgrounds suffer the most. That, after all, is why the government is investing so much in new academies for deprived areas.
Other countries as diverse as social-democratic Sweden and free-enterprise America have evolved systems of school choice that provide more effectively for children from low-income backgrounds. In Sweden since 1992 every parent has had the right to choose an independent school and receive state funding. Schools are not allowed to make additional charges and there is no selection of any kind. Private schools can be set up fairly easily. The Swedish National Agency for Education (NAE) has to give permission but it has not used its powers to obstruct new schools. Sweden’s municipal authorities have sometimes objected to plans for rival schools, but the NAE has frequently overruled them.
It is generally accepted across the Swedish political spectrum that competition from independent schools has improved results in state schools. Competition has had a ripple effect, raising standards in every school within travelling distance. Moreover, many private schools have been established in areas where under-performing state schools were serving disadvantaged children. Unfortunately there are no rigorous academic studies of the Swedish system, but the beneficial effects of competition are consistent with Harvard University’s investigation of Wisconsin’s voucher scheme, which is available to parents on low incomes. The study found that…