Page last updated at 17:18 GMT, Monday, 8 February 2010

Can Sweden really teach British schools a lesson?

Watch Liz MacKean's film in full.

Newsnight's Liz MacKean reports from Sweden on the independent school system which the Conservatives hope to introduce in England if they win the next election.

When I travelled to Sweden to report on their school system, I took some company - the Conservative party's policy document Raising the Bar, Closing the Gap - its action plan for raising standards in schools, creating more good school places and making opportunity more equal.

It describes an educational utopia, a land where new schools can open up anywhere to meet parental demand. Even better, the increased competition for pupils forces standards up. The blueprint is based on similar reforms introduced in Sweden in 1992 as part of a sweeping New Labour-style reform programme to give more choice in public services.

Mimmi Kindstrom
I thought it was really good that I could choose the new school. I had a choice
Mimmi Kindstrom

There are now more than 1,100 such schools in Sweden, funded by the state, but operated independently.

I visited one of them. Kallskollen was one of the very first to be set up when the Swedish education system went from being one of the most centrally controlled, to being one of the most liberal.

At the school attended by around 100 students, the emphasis is on pastoral care, as headmaster Bo Nyberg explained: "We think that the human aspect in school is very important and we think that if a student gets along well in life, he or she can also learn better."

It is a philosophy he is free to promote. If parents do not like it, they will not send their kids there and he would be forced to close.

The Swedish people generally approve of the new system. About 10% of all students of compulsory school age now attend the new schools, and in the upper secondary level it is about 20%.

Mimmi Kindstom is one of those who made the switch.

"I thought it was really good that I could choose the new school. I had a choice," she told me.

Knock on effect?

Her father Soren was similarly positive.

He, like many people in Sweden, think that there is a direct link between greater choice in schools and improved educational standards.

"You have a competition between the schools so that state schools also have to raise the standards to get people to their schools," he said.

"And I think many people believe that."

If they exclude profit-making organisations I think they will end up with a small number of small schools run by charitable trusts and parents' groups, and I don't think they will have a great impact
Anders Hultin

David Cameron's Conservatives certainly do - their policy is based on the premise that a rising tide lifts all.

The Tories are convinced the system will work by ensuring schools can open where they are needed, stating in their report that "Swedish children from the poorest areas have been able to escape failing state schools".

However, one feature of the Swedish system, which the Conservatives will not be adopting, is that the operators of new schools can turn a profit.

Slipping standards

The man who helped introduce the system in Sweden, Anders Hultin, told me this is the key to their success and removing the money motive would be a mistake:

"If they exclude profit-making organisations I think they will end up with a small number of small schools run by charitable trusts and parents' groups, and I don't think they will have a great impact," he said.

The Conservatives also state in their report that since the Swedish system was changed "standards have risen across all state schools".

But that is not what Per Thulberg, Director General of the Swedish National Agency for Education, the man who runs Sweden's schools, told me:

"This competition between schools that was one of the reasons for introducing the new schools, has not led to better results," he said. "The lesson is that it's not easy to find a way to continue school improvement."

It was noticed a few years ago that standards across all schools were slipping.

Perplexed, the Swedes carried out international comparative studies, as well as detailed national research, which confirmed the decline.

It is not understood why, but the slide began at around the time the schools were introduced.

"The students in the new schools they have in general better standards, but it has to do with their parents, their backgrounds. They come from well-educated families," Mr Thulberg said.

So, not only are standards generally down, there are strong indications that the new schools have increased social segregation.

It will not be what the Conservatives want to hear.

Swedish politicians are going back to basics. Their new schools remain popular, but they will face more inspections and more rigorous testing.

You will not read that in the Tories' glowing policy paper.

Watch Liz MacKean's film in full on Newsnight on Monday 8 February 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two.

Tory Swedish model for schools
07 Oct 09 |  UK

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