This article is not about human aesthetics. It is about how easy it is to become complacent about education reform and how equally important it is to keep tweaking our education system to achieve excellence.

For several years the Swedish education system was the model that most countries followed closely and wanted to emulate. US educators would travel to Sweden to discuss the strategies adopted by this Scandinavian country, which always had a reputation for undertaking structural economic and social reforms before everybody else. The former controversial but often well-meaning UK education secretary Michael Gove declared in 2008: “We need a Swedish education system.”

In the early 1990s, Sweden introduced school choice for students and parents with the aim of boosting performance through competition. The centre-right government wanted to reverse the effects of decades of centre-left rule by coming up with innovative strategies in various socio-economic areas including pensions and education. The government wanted to energise the educational system and allowed for the establishment of independent or ‘free’ schools. These were privately-run schools that are publicly funded through a voucher scheme – and which could make a profit.

There are many who often rightly believe that in the field of education government bureaucracy can often dissipate resources, alienate educators and students in equal measure, and give poor value for money to the tax payers. Sweden, like the other Scandinavian countries, has an enviable reputation of being an egalitarian society where almost everyone pays their admittedly high taxes but gets excellent public services in health, education and social benefits. But this is where complacency sets in.

Recently an OECD report indicated that Sweden “suffered a deep decline in the Pisa survey in the areas of reading, mathematics and science results between 2000 and 2012 – a period when the country’s share of top performers in mathematics roughly halved”. According to a Financial Times correspondent in Gothenburg, in this period some Swedish privately-run schools were riddled with scandals: “Outraged parents sparked a national debate on the future of Swedish education.”

The left-leaning government coalition is wasting no time to get the educational system back on track. Gustav Fridolin, Green party education minister, says: “This failure is very serious. This gives a picture of the Swedish school system pulled apart.”

There are, of course ‘islands of excellence’ in the Swedish educational system – but for a country that promotes equal opportunities for all this is not sufficient.

We need to ensure that our schools really ‘nurture excellence’ rather than ‘mediocrity for all’

The OECD report highlighted the importance of a key success factor in any education system: teachers. According to the report, in Sweden “teaching is considered a low-status and relatively unattractive profession, partly because of a heavy workload and relatively low salaries for experienced teachers”. Conditions are not conductive to “nurturing excellence’ in the teaching profession, while distrust between staff and employers has contributed to high turnover”. Doesn’t this sound familiar?

It is a sad reality that teachers, police, soldiers and paramedical staff are often badly paid in the public sector. Teachers in the private sector often similarly suffer from poor working conditions. School managers try to compensate for poor working conditions by setting low performance standards for the staff they manage. Teachers enjoy their small perks including long holidays but often have to resort to moonlighting to make both ends meet. This is no way to ‘nurture excellence’.

The OECD report also called for a “controlled” parental choice “to ensure a more diverse distribution of students between schools. While Sweden has always embraced social equity in education it is now finding that choice poses risks that can exacerbate inequalities and segregation”.

Counties like the Netherlands and Hong Kong have found a more successful balance between equity in schools and free market forces. The OECD education director and head of Pisa, Andreas Schleicher comments: “In Sweden there is reliance on markets without giving due attention to what makes a strong education system. The market in Sweden has been unable to spread the good examples and to deal with the failures – there are some very successful free schools but the system has not taken advantage of them, while the underperforming ones have not been tackled.”

There are lessons to be learnt from the ugly Swedish model. We need to ensure that our schools really “nurture excellence” rather than “mediocrity for all”. To achieve this we must upgrade the status of the teaching profession by paying better salaries but also demanding top notch performance by teachers.

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