Comparisons with Nordic countries are in vogue with the Cabinet Secretary for Education recently extolling the merits of the Swedish free schools. Looking to Scandinavia for public policy inspiration is very worthwhile and the work of Nordic Horizons and others is important in promoting a dialogue. These countries are of similar size and geography to Scotland and share at least some common attitudes and cultural links.
Last week I was giving a presentation to a visiting delegation of Norwegian trade unionists on the Scottish health and social care system. This was a privilege because we usually look to them for inspiration. For example, the Norwegian health service has a much better staffing ratio per head of population than Scotland. They also have a genuinely ‘local’ council structure, serving real communities rather than our historical compromises. Of course their greatest achievement is a more equal society that delivers better outcomes in almost every measure.
This visit was one of a number of similar trips by Norwegian unions to Scotland in recent years. They are concerned that market principles are invading their public services, largely based on the English model promoted in the New Labour years and taken to new lows by the ConDems. They come to Scotland to learn how another small country has taken a different path of public service reform based on cooperation not competition. I was able to give them an historical overview and update them on the work of the Christie Commission that again sets a very different course from other parts of the UK.
Interestingly, they were less than impressed by the Swedish free schools and pointed to recent studies that question how effective they have been. The number of low performing pupils has increased since the free school system was introduced. They regard this as a good example of how market principles are undermining the success of the Nordic approach in creating and maintaining a more equal society. It is equality that makes the difference and this is reflected in UK studies that show that school systems are less important than social class determining positive education outcomes.
I would therefore look to Finland instead of Sweden where they combine the highest levels of attainment in the OECD‟s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and have “high and consistent performance standards across the entire education system”. It is important to note though that Finnish success in world education rankings is not just about their school model. It is a country that values social cohesiveness. Finns pay relatively high taxes which provide the money for high quality services which all contribute to the well being of their children.
So while we should continue to take inspiration from Scandinavia, we should remember that some developments there are driven by the same neo-liberal policies that have caused so much damage in the rest of Europe. I wonder if Mike Russell would be as keen on free schools if he fully appreciated the link to the English market reforms? Well he might, but the rest of us should be more wary.