Education Quandary: 'What's so great about schools in Sweden? Are they really so good we should copy them?'

Hilary's advice

I'm just off to Copenhagen, so this is a good time to consider our neighbours, the Sainted Scandinavians.

Like all education journalists, I've had my ear bashed repeatedly about the wonders of this region's schooling systems, from Finland's fabulous primary schools to the miracles of Danish kindergartens. The current darling is Sweden's system of state-funded independent schools, and if the Conservatives get in at the next election, we will apparently see a lot of these "free" schools over here.

Like our academies, the schools are free to do their own thing while broadly staying in line with the mainstream curriculum, although a big difference is that for-profit companies are allowed to run them. The schools get good results, and pupils and parents seem to like them.

But the schools appear to be able to screen out at least some children with special needs, and it's hard to say how much of their success stems from attracting middle-class families - and thereby increasing the kind of educational apartheid that is so harmful to poorer pupils and to society in general.

So the short answer to your question is that there are NO magic solutions in education, and it is no good looking for them. Every incoming politician should be forced to write this out 100 times. Scandinavian countries invest heavily in their school and have cohesive cultures with relatively small gaps between the highest and lowest earners. These things are the true bedrock of their flourishing educational systems, not anything else.

Readers' advice

In Sweden anyone can set up a school and get government money for it. The money follows the child, so the more children you attract, the more money you get. That means competition and a climate that allows good schools to flourish. You can also set up the kind of school you want, which makes for diversity and more creative ways of teaching. A lot of parents' groups have set up schools. That's what's so good about the Swedish system.

Paul Selton, London W1

Sweden has a voucher system, which has divided educationists for years. Supporters say vouchers promote choice and improve standards; critics say they waste money because they use tax revenues to support excess school capacity. Evidence from the US is ambiguous. It depends on the social and economic context. What works in Sweden will not necessarily work as well in the UK.

Betty Powell, Cardiff

My nephews go to school in Sweden. Their school is small, light and modern, with a lot of glass and natural light, no behaviour problems, and great food. Relationships between teachers and student are fantastic, and every child has their own learning plan and goals. If that's the Swedish model, we should definitely bring it here.

Melanie Balcombe, West Sussex

Next Week's Quandary

Along with other parents, I am hoping to help set up a parents' council at my daughter's secondary school. This idea is supported by the Government but there seems to be little advice on how to go about it. How do councils work? What should we do to get one off the ground?

Send your replies, or any quandaries you would like to have addressed, to h.wilce@btinternet. com. Please include your postal address. Readers whose replies are printed will receive a Collins Paperback English Dictionary 5th Edition. Previous quandaries are online at www.hilarywilce.com where they can be searched by topic.

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