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Conversations , political and practical.

March 17, 2010

In a couple of hours I will be on my way to Copenhagen and should be back in Edinburgh in plenty of time to vote in the Parliament at 5.00pm.    It has been a hectic few days but last night’s dinner, kindly arranged by Anna Komheden, the Desk Officer for Education in the British Embassy in Stockholm (who spent the day with us and contributed some valuable insights as well as efficient shepherding!) and hosted by the Deputy Head of Mission Alison Thorpe was  a useful summing up and provided some practical grounding for what we had heard.

My meeting with the Minister, Jan Bjorklund laid the foundation, of course, for appreciating what was taking place in education.   The Swedish government has clear views about what needs to change and their educational reforms have included work on the curriculum  , on vocational education (separating out the academic and vocational streams more clearly) , on school discipline , on teacher education and on assessment.    The view of the coalition (he is the Liberal leader in the Parliament   and the Liberals are part of a four party coalition) is that Swedish education had been allowed to drift in the last decade or so without sufficient supervision and sufficient rigour.   That has resulted in the drift downwards in international educational performance as well as in individual learning.

With Jan Bjorklund in the Education Ministry

Once again that appears to be greatly at odds with with what is happening in Finland but in fact the focus on improving and sustaining teacher education is the same – only the starting point is different.  In Finland the starting point is a highly motivated, very well qualified and strongly trusted teaching profession ; in Sweden not enough people want to be teachers and the status of the profession is low.  It is also not well paid, and indeed our teachers in Scotland are better remunerated.

The question of remuneraton and status was a key theme over dinner which was held in a lovely restaurant by the water a short distance from our hotel though the outdoor dining it specialises in was hardly an option given the weather !   We all walked there after I had done a final interview with Emma Seith of the Times Educational Supplement Scotland who has been with our group for the journey and who our hosts have allowed to attend many of our visits and discussions.

Pontus by the Sea - a view from the restaurant

The General Secretary of the largest Swedish teachers union, Soren Holm, was one of the guests at dinner.    There was also a Headteacher of a Vocational School, an expert on cross border education projects, someone involved in pedagogy and teaching research and an individual from the children’s health sector.   All were open and forthcoming and the discussion was wide ranging.   As in Scotland there was no absolute agreement  about current or future educational changes though there was a measure of consensus and also keen support for a long term approach.  It was obvious therefore that there would be and is considerable interest in the Finnish system and a desire to  emulate in some way their societal trust in teachers and their broad agreement on policy.   One guest made the point – and it is not the first time I have heard it – that Finland is good at consensus anyway and that education is just one part of national life that benefits from the ability to agree goals.

Other topics covered in an enjoyable and wide ranging exploration of Swedish and Scottish education included curriculum reform , school drop out rates (which are higher in Scandanavia than with us) and the importance of comprehensive education – making education available to all on the same basis.    The free school model was discussed but it is clear that it is no longer a major bone of contention in education or politics with a recognition that it provides a key part of the overall system.   One of the guests made an intriguing point that whilst most there is continuing  controversy in Sweden about private profit in the provision of public services  the core issue for them is  diversity of  quality provision paid for always by the state not by the individual.

The Scottish group walked back on a beautiful clear and cold night (it was -10 when we left the restaurant at about 9.15) , passing the Royal Palace

Racing round the royal palace

where there was much work going on to prepare the course for a ski race around the building today.  Last year, we were told, snow had to be brought in and it kept melting.  This year there has been no such problem.

It will take some time to work out what the key messages from this trip has been but I will try and summarise them in a final entry.   Meanwhile time to leave for the airport !

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2010 1:02 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to put these blog entries together. They offer food for thought and useful insights into a politician’s way of seeing the education world.

    I’m particularly interested in what you had to say about teacher education – this being part of the day job – and would agree with your observations regarding the difference between the Swedish and Finnish situations. I think however, without wanting to sound too judgmental, the approach being taken in Sweden is setting itself up for the type of disappointments we have seen in so many other places when they start to tinker with teacher education without taking either time or trouble to speak at length and in an open way to both teachers and those who educate them. One of the understandings that comes from a research interest in all of this is that policy people often work to different agendas and timeframes than politicians and practitioners; I have personally tried for some time – with only limited and time-delineated success (they move on so quickly) – to keep meaningful discussions going with policy people regarding teacher education & development here in Ireland. So have others. And we’ve had some success. But though it hurts to say so, we’re still probably more Sweden than Finland despite the calibre of our initial teacher education programmes.

    Scotland’s vision and achievements in this area are well-known and well-regarded over our side of the water; going forward these would seem for now at least to be in safe hands. Good luck with the work.

    • March 18, 2010 11:11 am

      I’m not so sure about the comment ‘being in good hands’. Whilst I have no reason to doubt the good intentions of the minister it really does seem that in reality the following is occurring…

      – over 2000 teaching jobs being lost in Scotland over the past two years
      – classroom assistant posts are being cut in schools (often by more than 40%)
      – the answer to teaching graduate underemployment… initial teacher education staff being made redundant. I am one of those facing redundancy.
      – the concordat between local authorities and the Scottish government being badly managed so that a reduction in class sizes was not enshrined ‘in law’.

      Perhaps he should address these issues first and foremost and stop burying his head in the sand as he did on Radio Scotland this morning (18-03-10)

      • March 22, 2010 12:34 pm

        Stephen, I note your points and obviously as a teacher educator myself, I’d share your concerns. My comment was made against the background in which I work in myself and I obviously don’t know the Scotland context anything like as well. However, the post, as I read it, seems far more than ‘well intentioned’; it seems engaged. My principal comparison is the Irish setting. We haven’t had a figure front & centre who engages in this way for a long, long time.

      • March 22, 2010 12:46 pm


        I know there is a lot of worry in some places about the coming year in Education but there are a number of factors involved which we all need to understand. Chief amongst them is the pressure from Westminster on Scottish budgets which we all fear will only get worse. That is why at the EIS fringe meeting at the SNP Conference this weekend I quite openly asked the EIS President to stand with the Scottish Government in resisting the “savage” cuts which the London based parties are talking about after a UK General Election.

        This year the Scottish government has actually increased funding for education but education budgets are also having to cope with pressures from previous flawed decisions here in Scotland, and chief among them has been the decision to go down the very expensive private finance route, which is forcing education revenue budgets to meet ever rising costs – an increase of £62 million from those budgets this year alone. That money has to come out of a pot that also pays for all the other things we need in education, rather than out of capital budgets where capital spending should normally be funded.

        In terms of teacher numbers certainly I have been very critical of the boom and bust approach of the past but when local authorities are under pressure then it is inevitable that they will seek to have what they think is the right number of teachers for the task they face and it would be very wrong to train young people for jobs that don’t exist. I hope that after this years reduction in training places we can look again at what we actually need as a nation, and I have been able to provide some resource to maintain core activities in the colleges with that prospect in mind.

        I have never been one to avoid difficult issues but there is much that is good in Scottish education. Our collective task is to tackle those things that need improvement and that is why I am keen to look at experience elsewhere and learn accordingly.

        Finally I want to defend the concordat. In all three of my ministerial posts in the last three years I have found the concordat a very useful way of doing business. It creates the context for constructive problem solving and has got both the Scottish Government and Scottish Local Authorities away from the negative stand off that typified much of the relationship in the first 8 years of devolution. The progress we are now making on class sizes – not as much as I wanted but more than we had achieved up until the end of last year – was only possible because both sides could sit down and work out a way forward within the concordat.

  2. March 18, 2010 6:21 pm

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