My beliefs about Swedish schools have changed as results have collapsed and I’ve come to recognise the effects of poor policy, problematic pedagogy and limited support. I want to conclude by comparing English and Swedish schools and systems. There are obvious risks in generalising across countries, but the underlying similarities are instructive. Nonetheless, let me preface this by quoting Weber, the great comparator: he noted that the expert
will of course find no facts unknown to him. We can only hope that he will find nothing definitely wrong in points that are essential… a writer must make modest claims for the value of his work (The Sociology of Religion).
It is impossible to prove – to know – learning is taking place without reliable, valid assessments. Classroom assessment in England remains too blunt to be useful to teachers, too vague to summarise accurately, and incredibly time-consuming. English exams, on the other hand, are externally assessed, and fairly reliable. If the situation in England is concerning, that in Sweden is more so: without valid measures we cannot begin to understand what is working and how well students are doing, in classrooms, schools or nationally.
Improvement in England would entail assessment focused on question-level analysis for teachers; multiple choice and comparative judgement for exams (see Daisy Christodoulou on this here or me here). In Sweden, a strong first step would be a move towards increasing the reliability and fairness of tests: two simple expedients would be giving greater weight to national tests (over teacher assessment) and having teachers exchange national tests rather than grade their own students.
A series of harmful pedagogical trends and ideas became dominant in the Nineties in both England and Sweden. In Sweden students the teacher has retreated, often leaving students to discover things for themselves, while pseudoscientific ideas like learning styles prevail. Things aren’t so different in England: despite a strong reaction against these trends, some of the incorrect ideas we learned early in our career (or entered the profession with) retain a strong influence, implicitly or explicitly. These ideas aren’t universal, but neither are they dead: see the evidence of the near-universality of some neuromyths.
Better ideas are available – but how quickly can they be spread, such that teachers believe and act on them consistently? There is huge promise in taking clear summaries like Deans for Impact’s ‘The Science of Learning‘, with catalysing groups like ResearchED and Learning Scientists spreading them further. I’m not clear which organisations will lead change in Sweden – but much of this work can transfer internationally.
A good working environment is a prerequisite to learning anything. In both England and Sweden disruptive behaviour is prevalent in too many classrooms too much of the time. There are stronger sanctions available in England, and more willingness to use them, but low-level disruption remains endemic. In Sweden, expectations seem lower than in England and support even more limited.
There is much to do in England, beginning with acknowledging the problem more openly (as a way to set higher standards for ourselves), guaranteeing teachers support, and training them to minimise behavioural challenges. In Sweden, a ‘to do list’ would look fairly similar, but would begin with a clarification of the rights and duties of the student, building consensus around ‘the right of the student to learn in undisturbed safety’.
What’s really struck me most in writing these posts is the suspicion that there’s a single idea undermining behaviour, pedagogy and curriculum in England and Sweden. Many students, parents and teachers in both countries seem to lack belief. They are gnawed by paralysing doubts – implicitly or explicitly – about key questions: Is there any point in an academic curriculum for all students? Can we really expect all students to behave well all the time? Does school honestly teach you anything worth knowing? Believing that young people should act autonomously, be free to behave as they please and make key decisions before they are ready to do so entirely undermines the teacher and the school and dooms modern education to die. We can’t educate young people if we don’t believe we have something, beyond their own horizons, worth sharing. We can’t educate young people if we don’t believe teachers have a key role in guiding their choices and behaviour. We need to shore up these beliefs, in both countries, examining the most successful schools and learning from what their teachers believe as well as what they do.
Support for teachers
Teachers need evidence, training and leadership, to be effective.
England appears to have a more numerous coalition of teachers and researchers pursuing an evidence-informed path. Bodies like the EEF, Datalab and ResearchED are doing inspiring work in creating and sharing evidence. It’s a movement which faces many barriers however, including practicality, existing beliefs and politics – I’d be a fool to pretend unbridled optimism when grammar schools are back on the agenda. Again, I’m not clear which organisations will lead this kind of movement in Sweden; one possible home would be the ‘National Institute for Teacher and School Leader Quality recommended by the OECD.
There are hints of the adoption of some of the most exciting teacher training approaches from the USA in England. There is an interest and the beginnings of a constituency developing deliberate practice in teaching, and codifying teaching expertise, in a few schools and teacher training providers. In England vociferous objections remain; in Sweden, such a constituency does not yet seem to exist.
Many school systems complain of a lack of school leaders or coming shortages. A prerequisite qualification, like the NPQH, seems essential. Yet England has made this optional and in Sweden leadership training begins only after a teacher becomes a school principal. Both countries face similar challenges in making the headship attractive and manageable: making the role more manageable by creating a Director of Operations role would be one useful step.
I’ve worked backwards to policy, rather than starting there, in line with my belief that the effect of the marketised system is important, but leads us to ignore underlying problems in Sweden. Remaining policy shifts which matter – in both systems – include ensuring teachers are paid well enough to make the profession attractive and providing schools receive fair funding nationally, according to their need. Sweden persuades me that Ofsted is indispensable – frustrating as it can be – and a more powerful inspection service might catalyse improvement in Swedish schools.
Three intentional omissions stand out:
- I’ve spent the last week doing Sweden down. It’s not that England (and other countries) can’t learn from Sweden’s education and youth policies. I envy Sweden’s generous parental leave, its excellent, subsidised childcare, its humane approach to welcoming refugees to the nation and to schools, and its adult education. I’ve discussed none of these, because the core point of these posts has been the discussion of problems facing the Swedish compulsory and high school.
- I’ve deliberately focused on problems. I have not sought to highlight the fantastic individuals – in schools, unions and training roles – who are desperate to improve Sweden’s schools.
- I’ve not discussed Sweden’s changing social composition. Gabriel Heller Sahlgren argues persuasively that immigration explains a good deal of Sweden’s recent fall in results. This is important, but I don’t think it detracts from the effect of the other criticisms.
As the discussion above suggests, England is more similar to Sweden than it is different. England has teetered on the brink of some of Sweden’s pitfalls – and stepped back. Yet many of the most exciting forces for change in England: ResearchED, Datalab, the EEF, barely existed five years ago. Some of the best schools – King Solomon Academy, Dixons Trinity, Reach – did not exist a decade ago. My hope is that England can build on the tentative foundations of improvement and spread these best practices more widely. My hope in Sweden is that it can combine some of the best of American and British practice with the social solidarity and humanity which made Sweden great to rebuild a powerful education system.
The full series of posts
I I lost faith in the Swedish school system
II Collapsing results in Swedish schools
III Are Sweden’s educational reforms down to disastrous policy reforms?
IV Chaotic behaviour in Swedish classrooms
V Constricted curriculum, problematic pedagogy
VI False ideas, weak training, limited support
Finally, I’d emphasise how powerful comparison can be in understanding your own system, and others. I’ve listened to Svein Sjøberg spend an entire lecture critiquing PISA‘s limitations and malicious intent and Sveriges Radio devote ninety minutes to academics worldwide complaining about the tests. I am unconvinced. International comparison is crucial to understand what is happening in our own schools. If you like this kind of thing, you’ll love Lucy Crehan’s Cleverlands, out soon.