Free schools 'could widen social divide'

Pupils Children from highly educated families benefited the most from free schools, research said.

The creation of Swedish-style free schools in England could increase social segregation but net limited improvements, a leading academic claims.

Dr Susanne Wiborg, of the Institute of Education, also says it could lead to many private providers running schools.

Plans to allow parents and others to set up schools are in the Academies Bill, going through Parliament.

The government says such schools will drive up standards.

Dr Wiborg, an expert in comparative education, is looking at the impact these independently run but state-funded schools have had in Sweden, and what effect they might have here.

She said the impact on results within Sweden's independent schools themselves were limited and short-term.

Start Quote

It seems more likely that private education providers will run schools on a non-for-profit basis”

End Quote Dr Susanne Wiborg

Moderate improvements at the GCSE-equivalent level did not persist at age 18 or 19, she said.

She also found that children from "highly educated" families were the ones who mostly gained from education in these schools.

"But the impact on families and immigrants who had received a low level of education is close to zero," she added.

Several studies say that school choice in Sweden has "augmented social and ethnic segregation, particularly in relation to schools in deprived areas", she said.

But she added: "If the neo-liberal reforms increased inequality of achievement as well as social segregation in Sweden, a country with a universal welfare state and a relatively high level of social equality, then other countries could risk an even greater increase in inequality from implementing similar kinds of independent schools."

Competition

She said that the policy would "exacerbate the existing divisions further, because there are much more inequalities between schools here in England than in Sweden".

She also pointed out that the reforms that were currently being proposed by Education Secretary Michael Gove went further than those introduced in Sweden in the 1990s.

"It was expected that the free schools would through competition help all schools to improve, but we can only see a moderate effect.

"So to put so much effort into creating free schools for such a limited result - the question is whether it is really worth it."

Dr Wiborg also questioned whether parents were really interested in running schools.

She said: "Sweden has a tradition of this, but we do not, so why would be expect the results to be lots of locally run schools when this is not even the typical outcome in Sweden.

"It seems more likely that private education providers will run schools on a non-for-profit basis."

Dog food manufacturer

In Sweden the biggest provider of free schools is a dog food manufacturer called John Bauer, which runs 27 schools.

There were a number of private firms who were already interested in setting up free schools in England including a Dubai-based company called Gems, she added.

She said that what was lacking was the "fundamental discussion" of who should be allowed to educate children and potentially boost their business interests with public money.

A Department for Education spokesman said: "In this country, too often the poorest children are left with the worst education while richer families can buy their way to quality education via private schools or expensive houses.

"By allowing teachers to set up new schools we will give all children access to the kind of education only the rich can afford - small schools with small class sizes, great teaching and strong discipline.

"The coalition's commitment to the pupil premium will mean free schools will be incentivised to cater for the poorest children."

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