Christina Patterson: Sweden's lesson in education priorities

If the Tories scrape through on Thursday, they're planning to open the first "free schools" in September

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If Britain were a bit more like Sweden, said a Tory minister last week, "I, for one, would not object". Well, nor would I. Lovely beaches, lovely forests, lovely lakes, lovely ginger biscuits. Oh yes, and lovely equality. Sweden has one of the smallest gaps between rich and poor in the world.

When we went every summer to visit our Swedish mother's relatives, we were the poor. In the cafeteria on the boat to Gothenburg, we would gaze in envy at blond families queuing up for hot dogs or meatballs and chips. My mother had brought ham rolls from home and, if we were lucky, a Penguin. Once, a man took pity on us and offered to buy us a can of Coke. My father let him buy one between us. We drank it, like suckling piglets, with three straws.

In the car to the two-room summer cottage we shared with our relatives, we could hardly move for the tins of Chunky Chicken and Vesta beef curry that would, for the next fortnight, feed us. On the beach, I stared in disbelief at the children whose parents bought them a Storstrut. An early precursor of the cornetto, it cost a whole Swedish crown.

My cousins wore jeans to school, and emerged at 18 with a string of qualifications and fluent English. So did pretty much everyone else. They went to their local school. Everyone (well, 99 per cent, to be precise) went to their local school. Nobody asked if it was a good or bad school. It was just a school. And, given that the people educated in those schools are currently overseeing the fourth most competitive economy in the world, and the one widely rated as the best in Europe for business creativity, it probably was pretty good.

What brought about these pretty good schools, and the lovely equality in this nation rated, no thanks to Bergman, Wallander et al, as one of the happiest and healthiest on the planet is, of course, extremely high taxation. My uncle, who was a vice-chancellor of a university and wrote books, lived next door to a lorry driver. Both had identical houses. Both bought their children Storstruts. Both had summer holidays in little wooden chalets near the sea.

When Michael Gove, the shadow Schools Secretary, praised Sweden on Radio 4's Any Questions on Saturday, he was talking about its schools. He was talking, in fact, about its "free schools", introduced by the centre-right coalition (yes, Messrs Gove and Cameron, coalition, and yes, under proportional representation) 17 years ago. Aiming to raise standards (well, even in Utopia you Must Try Harder) by introducing competition, it offered parents the right to start their own school. This being Sweden, which gives even the sons of CEOs free school lunches, the state coffers poured forth. Now, almost 10 per cent of children go to independent schools, but hardly anyone pays for them.

The "free schools" system in Sweden involved vast capital investment, and offered those setting them up the chance, in the long term, to make a profit. The Tories are offering neither of these: minimal capital investment (because the coffers are empty) and no chance to make a profit because – well, I'm not quite sure why. For a party keen to preserve the charitable status of schools that make a packet, it seems a bit strange. The Swedish model also took place in an extremely civic-minded society. Sweden has a strong tradition of social and religious activism, and trade unions. Electoral turn-out, at more than 80 per cent, is the highest in the world.

It might, in other words, be fertile territory for the Big Society, the big idea rolled out in the "invitation to join the Government", otherwise known as the Tory manifesto. Swedes are collaborative, conscientious and intensely aware of the public good. They do believe there is such a thing as society, one in which people have responsibilities beyond kith and kin. They also, incidentally, believe in the big state, and like it. But the Tories weren't talking to Swedes. The Big Society big idea (Oliver Letwin's, actually, not Cameron's) sank like a lead balloon. Brits just can't be arsed. DIY, in the great British psyche, is for B&Q.

Yesterday, on the Today programme, Michael Gove made a last-ditch attempt to breathe the Big Society back to life. He cited two or three examples of "the voluntary spirit" in action and when nice Evan Davis told him it was all sounding a bit "half-baked", he attacked his "cynicism" and talked of the "idealism" he hoped to "harness".

He's going to have to get harnessing pretty damn soon. If the Tories scrape through on Thursday, they're planning to open the first "free schools" in September. Those parents had better lace their idealism with a bit of nous, and drive, and financial know-how, as well as oodles of spare time, if they want little Jake and Chloe to get the education they've always dreamed of. But without Swedish levels of funding, of course.

On the other hand, he could just forget it. The "free schools" system in Sweden has, according to the country's own National Agency for Education, been expensive and ineffective. In February, its director, Per Thulberg, told Newsnight that "the competition between schools" had "not led to better results". It had, he said, led instead to greater social segregation.

We're already rather good at social segregation. We don't need lessons in it from countries that are discovering it for the first time. It's actually quite simple. It's high taxes and massive public spending which have made Sweden the equal society that Gove says he admires. It was a system of near-universal state schools, without much in the way of choice, that produced the educational standards that have made it thrive. Not faith schools, not "free schools", not grow-your-own or pick 'n' mix schools, and not Eton. Yup, if Britain were a bit more like Sweden, I wouldn't object at all.

For further reading: Andrew Brown: Fishing in Utopia (2008)

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