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Page last updated at 15:40 GMT, Sunday, 14 March 2010

'Choice revolution' for schools

By Gilly Mathieson
BBC Scotland Politics Show

School class
Backers of the Swedish system said it had increased quality

Scottish Education Secretary Mike Russell is travelling to Sweden and Finland to look at alternative ways of delivering education.

The Swedish system, where schools can be taxpayer-funded but run by independent charities or trusts, is a model which the Conservatives hope to introduce if they win the election.

Parents in Sweden can choose whether to educate their children state-funded "free schools", founded by private companies, or voluntary groups.

The money follows the student, so, if the schools attract enough pupils, they survive and the better ones thrive.

Swedish Consol General Torvald Colliander, said: "They've introduced a level of competition because they get paid so much per pupil from the state sector, and, if they can make profit out of that and still run the school with the correct curriculum and educational standards, they're allowed to do so.

The new school system with independent schools has increased costs for municipalities
Dr Ingela Naumann
Edinburgh University

"There's a competition between the state sector and the free school sector which has brought up the quality of the education on both sides."

Dr Ingela Naumann, of Edinburgh University, who studied the "choice revolution" in Sweden, said rural areas benefited marginally, while inequalities in urban areas had grown.

"The new school system with independent schools has increased costs for municipalities," she added.

"One of the reasons is that municipalities, to some extent where there are a lot of free schools, have to provide overcapacity because it is the municipality and the public schools that have a responsibility for educating the children while the independent schools don't."

Nevertheless, the policy been popular with Swedish parents.

Erika Bostrom, a mother from Sweden who now lives in Edinburgh, said: "Here in Scotland there is not really much choice.

'Big problem'

"You do have your local state school, and, if that school doesn't really suit you and your child, you can go private - and to give your child private education is a very big financial burden."

Swede Helen Nordberg, who taught special needs children in her native country for 40 years and now owns a shoe shop in Edinburgh, said the choice revolution left many youngsters coping with issues such as dyslexia, in a more vulnerable position.

She said: "The free schools couldn't support them as well as they needed, so then they came back to me and that was really a big problem.

"I had to catch up with the knowledge and have to help them with their self confidence, which they'd lost as they hadn't got any help."

So what can Scotland learn from its Nordic cousins - and should Scotland be looking at giving parents here greater choice?

It has proved popular in Sweden, but could it end up costing more - and will it help raise educational standards in our more disadvantaged areas?

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