The story goes that Sweden was once a bastion of educational excellence. In the 1990s, it embarked upon a series of reforms which included the formation of ‘free schools’ – state funded independent schools, some of which were allowed to run at a profit. This neoliberal fragmentation of a once world-leading system led to a decline in standards and plummeting performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Except that this might not be the whole story. Even Sally Weale of the Guardian points to the fact that discipline is a major issue for Swedish schools and that, “Conservatives… say students have been given too much influence in the classroom, undermining the authority of teachers.” Who are these ‘conservatives’ and what is their case?
It appears that one of them is an academic embedded deep within the Swedish educational establishment. He is Jonas Linderoth, Professor of Education at the University of Gothenburg. He is clear where much of the blame lies – it lies with him and his colleagues and he would like to say sorry.*
He believes that since at least the 1990s, teacher educators, trades unions, academics and politicians have all held to a consensus that undermined the role of the teacher. Standing at the front of the class and explaining things became associated with abuse of power and iron discipline. Instead, teachers were encouraged to foster independent learning: classroom work would be based on a student’s natural motivation and boundaries between different subjects would be removed.
Teachers who were against this new approach and who wanted to teach in a more traditional way were demonised and yet Linderoth now believes that these were the teachers who did most to promote equity because they provided more support for the weakest students and those with the least cultural capital. Linderoth recalls with shame an early presentation that he gave where he claimed to have learnt more English through his interest in music than through school; a presentation accompanied – of course – by Pink Floyd’s “Brick in the Wall”. He now acknowledges that without excellent teachers – teachers you didn’t negotiate with – he might not have gone on to higher education.
I find it interesting that such similar arguments are playing out across the world. We can probably all recognise the demonisation of traditional methods – think “drill and kill” or equating testing to some form of abuse – and the unexamined assumption that student-centered, inquiry methods are superior almost by definition.
And this raises important questions for advocates of Free Schools or their U.S. equivalent, Charter Schools. I am still not convinced by this project. These schools are being sold as a way of freeing teachers from bureaucrats in order to enable them to try different approaches. Yet this didn’t happen in Sweden; the child-centered consensus prevailed. Presumably this was because people with a child-centered philosophy still held enormous power in the system through their roles in teacher education and accreditation. They held it in a python-like grip. There is no point in setting-up a more independent kind of state school if inspectors can close the ones they disapprove of or deregister the teachers who work in them.
This is why we should always be cautious about founding new bureaucracies such as the College of Teaching in England. Ask yourself: who are these people and why do they want this power?
*I have used a mix of Google Translate and Swedish speaking contacts to attempt to understand Linderoth’s argument. If I have lost any nuances as I paraphrase his writing then the fault is entirely mine