Can Sweden teach our schools a lesson?

The children design their uniforms. They sit on cushions while being taught. And it's the teachers who change classrooms between lessons. A left-wing experiment? No, Britain's first Scandinavian-style school – and the model for the Tories' education policy. Richard Garner visits Hampton Community College
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The Independent Online

By September the pupils will have designed their new uniform. There is also a good chance that teachers will be the ones moving through the school at the end of each lesson, not the children – who will be staying put to reduce disruption. As Courtney Haynes, 12, puts it: "When we move out into the corridors, we're all crammed up together."

She has a point. When entire classes have to move, the potential for lost time and misbehaviour is greater. The biggest change these pupils will see, though, is in the form of the individual tutorials they will have to attend every week to discuss their progress in each subject.

Courtney and her fellow pupils will shortly become the first in the country to attend a Swedish-style Kunskapskolan school – a new style of school highly favoured by Michael Gove, the shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. At present, they are pupils of Hampton Community College in Richmond-upon-Thames, Surrey, which from September will become one of the first academies to be sponsored by the Swedish group.

A second school in the same borough, Witton, will undergo a similar transformation at the same time. Both have in the past been viewed as underperforming, although Hampton has been improving under its present head Sue Demont, who will become head of the new academy in September.

Ask anyone connected with Kunskapskolan in the UK about the project and they are adamant that it is not a Swedish takeover of the English education system. "Philosophically, we believe in doing things for people rather than doing it to people," said Steve Bolingbroke, head of Kunskapskolan in the UK. "Part of the process is listening to people and finding out what they want – and consulting them about changes."

The most vocal opposition to the new academy has come from right-wing traditionalists in the Conservative Party, who see Kunskapskolan's involvement in Richmond as an attempt to turn back the clock to the more progressive liberal ideas which dominated education in the 1960s. The new academy does, however, have a number of key supporters – including the former schools minister Andrew Adonis, who backed the project in its infancy before he was transferred to the Department for Transport. Its co-sponsor is the Liberal Democrat-controlled Richmond Council, and the Conservatives have often eulogised about bringing the Swedish independent "free" schools movement to this country.

Dr Demont took over as headteacher of Hampton five years ago, well aware that the school was in need of "quite a lot of improvement". She says her biggest achievement in the past five years, has been to reverse a long-term decline in the school roll. Now it is to be turned into an academy, it is likely that it will have to turn away pupils for the first time this September.

However, a shortage of funds made the improvements she wanted to introduce impossible. "Richmond has less than half the funding of the school I had come from [in Camden]," she explains.

Now, with the extra money that academy status will bring, there will be smaller classes and more tutorials for pupils. "If I had wanted to model on another education system, I wouldn't have said, say, Italy," Dr Demont added. "I would have thought of Finland and Sweden – Scandinavian countries which have updated their education systems and taken account of the 21st century, and are not all sitting in rows and moving at the sound of a bell, which dates back to the 1870s."

Kunskapskolan plans to open five schools in England. The third will be in Ipswich and talks abnout the locations of the other two are continuing. "We are not bringing the Swedish school system to London," said Mr Bolingbroke. "We're just bringing an educational concept." In tutorials, pupils will be shown the curriculum in each subject represented by 40 steps, allowing them to measure the progress they have made. Lessons will not always be in 45-minute or hour-long chunks. Science lessons will straddle two hours to give more time for practical experiments.

Children will also be able to learn in comfort in a new library with underfloor heating and comfy cushions to sit on. Meanwhile, debate about uniforms is still raging. Many first-years believe they will be too hot to wear in summer – but others think they will look smart. It will all be sorted out and decided by the pupils by September.

Swedish model: Freedom of choice

Hampton Academy will be one of the first two Swedish-style academies to be opened in England this September. Although it was conceived under Labour while Lord Adonis was Schools Minister, it is a prototype for the kind of school that Michael Gove, the shadow Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, wants to bring in.

Mr Gove has embraced the Swedish independent "free" education system, where private individuals or groups can get state funding for new schools.

Kunskapskolan, the sponsor of Hampton Academy, is a major player in the Swedish state system and wants to establish five schools in England. But it would be wrong to characterise Mr Gove's plans as giving the green light to liberal education ideologists to set up in England. His whole philosophy is based on establishing a diversity of provision within the state-funded sector so that parents have more choice about the type of schools their children attend.

As in Sweden, groups with a traditional approach to education are likely to come forward, too. The difference between this country and Sweden is that Swesidh providers are allowed to make a profit. Mr Gove has so far set his face against such an idea being used in England.