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Free schools? We need a lesson from the clever Swedes

If Britain were a bit more like Sweden, said a Tory shadow minister last week, “I, for one, would not object”. Well, nor would I.

Lovely beaches, lovely forests, lovely lakes, lovely ginger biscuits. Oh yes, and lovely equality. Sweden has one of the smallest gaps between rich and poor in the world.

When we went every summer to visit our Swedish mother's relatives, we were the poor. In the cafeteria on the boat to Gothenburg, we would gaze in envy at blond families queuing up for hot dogs, or meatballs and chips. My mother had brought ham rolls from home and, if we were lucky, a Penguin.

In the car to the summer cottage we shared with our relatives, we could hardly move for the tins of Chunky Chicken and Vesta beef curry that would, for the next fortnight, feed us. On the beach, I stared in disbelief at the children whose parents bought them a Storstrut. An early precursor of the Cornetto, it cost a whole Swedish crown.

My cousins wore jeans to school, and emerged at 18 with a string of qualifications and fluent English. So did pretty much everyone else.

They went to their local school. No one asked if it was a good or bad school. It was just a school.

When Michael Gove, the shadow Schools Secretary, praised Sweden, he was talking about its schools. He was talking, in fact, about its ‘free schools’, introduced 17 years ago.

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Aiming to raise standards by introducing competition, it offered parents the right to start their own school. Now, almost 10% of children go to independent schools, but hardly anyone pays for them.

The ‘free schools’ system in Sweden involved vast capital investment and offered those setting them up the chance, in the long term, to make a profit. The Tories are offering neither of these.

The Swedish model also took place in an extremely civic-minded society. Sweden has a strong tradition of social and religious activism and trade unions. Electoral turn-out, at more than 80%, is the highest in the world.

It might, in other words, be fertile territory for the Big Society, the big idea rolled out in the “invitation to join the Government”, otherwise known as the Tory manifesto.

Swedes are collaborative, conscientious, and intensely aware of the public good. They do believe there is such a thing as society, one in which people have responsibilities beyond kith and kin.

They also, incidentally, believe in the big state, and like it. But the Tories weren't talking to Swedes. The Big Society idea sank like a lead balloon. We just can't be bothered, you see. DIY, in the great British psyche, is for B&Q.

Gove made a last-ditch attempt this week to breathe the Big Society back to life.

He cited two or three examples of “the voluntary spirit” in action; he talked of the “idealism” he hoped to “harness”.

He's going to have to get harnessing pretty damn soon. If the Tories scrape through today, they're planning to open the first ‘free schools’ in September.

Those parents had better lace their idealism with a bit of nous, and drive, and financial know-how, as well as oodles of spare time, if they want little Jake and Chloe to get the education they've always dreamed of. But without Swedish levels of funding, of course.

On the other hand, Gove could just forget it. The ‘free schools’ system in Sweden has, according to the country's own National Agency for Education, been expensive, ineffective, and has led to greater social segregation.

We're already rather good at social segregation. We don't need lessons in it from countries that are discovering it for the first time.

It's actually quite simple. It's massive public spending which has made Sweden the equal society we admire.

So if Britain were a bit more like Sweden, I wouldn't object. No, not at all.

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