Snart ska vi alla talar svenska

Sweden has a lot going for it, and by that I mean much more than a bunch of otherwise resting English actors crawling over Ystad city centre, reinterpreting Henning Mankell‘s Wallander crime novels for a British television audience. Sweden is a thoroughly decent place to live. The country has a mature and lively democracy, with in some places an impressive level of community spirit and active involvement. It’s almost as nice as Denmark.

Is Sweden’s niceness the legacy of decades of social democratic hegemony? Only partly, as in Sweden you will find a considerable degree of social responsibility among the most individualistic liberals and cuddly conservatives, whose political representatives govern the country during the current social democrat interregnum.

Britain’s Conservative party cannot get enough of Sweden, it seems. Leader David Cameron is a PR creation partly modelled on Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, and the Conservative-Liberal coalition cabinet in some ways resembles the centre-right government in Stockholm. That is, the executive in London is packed with caring, sharing, young-to-middle-aged men and women of privileged family background.

The downside is that with such political demographics any idiot can rise to the highest offices of state. And frequently does. Witness George Osborne.

Following its election in 2006, there was much hope invested in Sweden’s liberal-conservative government. But this was soon dashed by official cack-handedness in many policy areas, one of which is the high school education model of which Britain’s Tories and their education spokesman Michael Gove cannot get enough.

Sweden’s so-called ‘free school movement’ was not the creation of Reinfeldt’s government, but rather an earlier centre-right coalition which two years before its demise in 1994 allowed parent groups, charities, commercial concerns and voluntary associations to establish schools beyond local authority control, and receive state funding so long as they operated an open(ish) admissions policy, and followed a core national curriculum. More than 10% of Swedish children now attend free schools, and the policy commands critical support.

Britain’s Tories are all over the free school idea, and wish to implement it wholesale across England. The other British nations, Wales and Scotland, aka the ‘Celtic Fringe’, control their own education sectors through national parliaments in Cardiff and Edinburgh.

Michael Gove, a former journalist and current TV rentagob who is now education secretary in David Cameron’s government, is reported to be writing to all secondary school head teachers in England, inviting them to transform their establishments into state-funded “academies” independent of local authority control. That’s every high school in England, and Gove is quite clear when he says that he wants to see his “offer” taken up across the board…

“I don’t want to coerce anyone into a position with which they’re unhappy. I want to allow schools to take up this offer.”

You can read into that what you will, but in my view this invitation is a prelude to some pretty strong arm-twisting. British Conservatives are not known for doing things by halves, and, for all its talk of freedom and liberality, the party is authoritarian to the core. Once a new policy has been decided upon, the Tories will brook no opposition, and the philosophy of one-size-fits-all applies.

Tory corporatist ideology and politicking aside, will the free schools policy work? Well that of course depends on your measure of success. If the intention is simply to remove power from local to central government, then the plan is quite brilliant, given the proportion of council budgets spent on education. The Tories intensely dislike local government, insisting instead on the unitary state, and supremacy of the Westminster parliament.

In Sweden the free school movement has brought about greater parental involvement in school management, and some decentralisation in education policy. At the same time, however, there have been negative developments, and the model is not cost-effective. In terms of demographics, free schools are dominated by children from well-off, middle-class families, and while such social divisiveness is in no way peculiar to independent schools, the free school movement is exacerbating an unwelcome trend in urban and suburban areas.

The problem here is not the core ideas of decentralisation, local control and active involvement of all (ahem!) stakeholders in the running of schools. It is the totalising vision that’s at fault in the free school policy. What we have here is essentially an idea born of big government with a grand vision of an ideal bourgeois society. It is a classic example of pseudo-free market double standards, and one which could ultimately cripple the Swedish educational experiment.

Will the Tories’ academies policy fail, and possibly derail the British government? Yes and no. I’m confident that the English academies will fail in the longer term, but the negative consequences of this flawed educational ideology will be felt at different times in different places, and the remedies could be many and various. In the shorter term the policy will likely gain wide public support. Or at least among the middle-class voters in urban and suburban southeast England who hold almost all the political power in the UK’s dominant nation.

The title above translates as “Soon we will all be speaking Swedish”.