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Islands, ice and an iphone.

March 16, 2010

Take off from Helsinki

The flight from Helsinki left at 8.45 am so the team was away from our hotel before 6.45 am. But the flight arrived in Stockholm at 8.45 am – we are on our way back and  the clock is counting us back to Edinburgh time !

Flying into Stockholm over the 25,000 (apparently) islands that lie off the capital of Sweden the ice was the most obvious feature – lots of small and not so small landscapes  dotted about a vast sheet of whiteness, with the occasional track of a vehicle and sometimes a little patch of dark blue water.

Island in the ice

By 10.00am we had been driven into the city and taken on a small sightseeing tour and we still arrived at our first meeting – with the Director General of Skolverket ( a type of hybrid educational and curriculum body) and the Director of Inspections – right on time.

The contrast between yesterday’s messages and todays was initially very stark.   Sweden, whose educational performance in international tests is broadly similar to Scotland’s , has recently intensified its inspection activity, is focussed on increasing assessment (though even the new regime will be still less frequent than at home) and wants to have a more rigorously prescriptive curriculum.   In that sense the tide seems to be running on this side of the Gulf of Bothnia in exactly the opposite way to the other side.   But in fact as our meetings unfolded during the day – lunch with the Deputy Mayor and Education Convener of the City of Stockholm , Lotta Edholm, a visit to a “free school” run by an educational foundation established by two dynamic Swedish women, and a discussion with the Education Minister Jan Bjorkland – it became clear that things were not that simple.

Lotta Edholm, Education Convener in Stockholm City Council

Lotta and her two colleagues entertained us in the magnificent surroundings of the Stockholm City Hall, an early twentieth century building in which the Nobel Prize Banquet  is held after the ceremonies and which has the most astonishing art nouveau Golden Hall.     She is a passionate believer in the “free school” system but it is necessary to come here to understand it.   It is not about private education – the schools are open to all pupils although the upper secondaries do select on the basis of results or aptitudes if they deliver specialist courses.    The basic philosophy is choice, not privilege and the guiding principle is ambition not exclusivity.

Of course there are other views of the schools though there seemed to be a unanimous view that the system , which has been in place for more than 15 years, is likely to remain no matter who is in government (though some details, such as the involvement of commercial companies, is still up for debate.)   On our visit to Viktor Rydbergs School early in the afternoon the teachers union rep in the school explained that although the unions were utterly opposed to the establishment of the free schools, they were now quite comfortable with the concept and that around 30% of their members worked in free schools.

The Viktor Rydberg delivers the standard curriculum , as they all must by law.  But it also specialises in social subjects and the arts and is very popular.   There is fierce competition for places but there is also fierce competition for places at some of the municipal schools too.  The issue is not, as the Minister told us later, what type of school it is, but how it delivers for its pupils.   Certainly it is possible that these schools syphon off the best pupils and the best staff but that is not axiomatic.

I cam away from the Viktor Rydbergs convinced that nothing I had heard

The Viktor Rydbergs Gymnasium

(or even contributed) during the Tory instigated debate in the Parliament last week actually explained what was being done in Sweden or what the “Swedish model” was actually about.   The issue now needs some much closer examination in the context of Scottish education, an examination based on outcomes not on a flawed assumption (from all sides) about its operation.   It might well be that a Scottish Local Authority would be best placed so to do – to look at the schools with the help of Stockholm Council who actually inspect them and see if the modus operandi has anything to offer their area.

The head teacher and management team of the school were enthusiastic and devoted to their task.   So were the two women who had founded the school at the start of the new policy and whose foundation now had four schools operating in the city and plans for further development.   This individual initiative has been inspirational and has helped many people – another factor to take into account in terms of freeing up contributions from across society to education.

Yet – and it is a big yet – the question of structure are not nearly as important even in Sweden as the same questions we talked about in Finland ; questions about trust in the system, about supporting and educating teachers, about learning autonomy, about curricula and assessment and about consensus and division in political dialogue on education.   Sweden has views on these too and sometimes looks with as much interest at its neighbour as we do. Perhaps the strongest messages are on that central matter of teaching and ensuring that teachers are well supported and well equipped – just as they were in Finland.

I will write about the Minister and our discussion later and about tonights dinner which I am just about to leave for – a group of educationalists and health workers coming together to discuss shared concerns.   Clearly we have much in common and some key problems we could share and solve – though there is much that is different too.

And the iphone – oh dear !!   The ice on the pavement outside the City Hall is clearly very hard indeed and my screen is in bits.   At least the phone still connects !

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