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It is unusual for politicians to admit that a policy they believed in and helped implement was not just wrong, but actually did harm. It is even more unusual for them to make a very public apology. But this is what the Swedish Green Party did last month, on the policy of Free Schools. In a national newspaper the party said, "Forgive us, our policy led our schools astray".
This followed the bankruptcy of a private education company which led to school closures and 11,000 pupils being left without a school to go to. It was just one of many such incidents in Sweden’s recently marketised school system.
When the concept of Free Schools was adopted in Sweden, the vision was one of a multiplicity of individual, locally run private schools. They were taxpayer funded but allowed to make a profit. As is the way in the modern free market, schools were quickly taken over by private equity firms, who bought up schools like any other business. Some companies own and run hundreds of schools.
For Michael Gove, who used Sweden as an example of how Free schools could improve educational standards and increase choice, this Swedish saga is a litany of cautionary tales.
Regulation has been so lax that a paedophile was able to establish a chain of seven schools. Eva Lis-Siren, head of Sweden’s biggest teaching union, says: "I've often said it's been easier to start an independent school than set up a hot-dog stand…in the push toward freedom of choice, one lost sight of quality control."
Educational standards have in fact fallen, and Tomas Tobe, education spokesman for the ruling Moderate party said, "I think we have had too much blind faith in that more private schools would guarantee greater educational quality."
Whilst UK Free Schools are not yet profit-making, worrying problems are emerging. A National Audit Office report shows they are increasingly expensive to set up, and are less likely to take children who are eligible for free school meals or who have English as a second language. They seem on the whole to be catering for the middle classes, and doing little to address the need for school places in areas where such need is greatest. This seems to be a questionable distribution of public money.
The trouble caused by letting market forces loose in the education system has made the Swedes have second thoughts about private involvement in other areas of public service, like health and social care.
Here in the UK, it was estimated that private equity firm Blackstone, which bought, rapidly expanded, and then sold Southern Cross, a company which owned hundreds of care homes, made £1 billion on the deal. It left Southern Cross in dire financial straits, leading to the closure of many homes. The distress and anxiety caused to frail elderly people and their families is difficult to overstate.
Michael Gove’s Free schools may not yet be profit-making, but there is pressure from within the Conservative party and from right wing think tanks for them to be allowed to be so. One would hope that such pressure is strongly resisted, given Sweden’s experience.
If we are going to fund education and care from our taxes, why should we let any private company make a profit out of it and treat children and the vulnerable as potential assets to be bought and sold? Why can we not just have a public service and pay what it costs in a simple and straightforward manner? We have a growing list of examples where outsourcing public services to private companies has been a costly mistake. Atos, Serco, G4S: all have let the taxpayer down in one way or another. Involving profit-motivated companies in the relationship between a public service and its users just complicates matters and muddies the water. Let’s get back to basics.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeadenTweet