Monday, April 5, 2010

Free schools - a way to make the family matter more than the individual?

This is the third post discussing a trend I see in the Swedish education system, a trend to use public institutions to shield middle class Swedish citizens from foreign or native competition. In the first post I discussed the decision to charge non-EU students with tuition fees. In the second post I examined the new system of merit points, who unintentionally(?) discriminate foreign students. In this post I take a look at the primary school system, that probably never before in Swedish history has been so segregated as it is today.

If we follow the Swedish educational madness down to the earlier school years, the raison'd'etré

of the system is visible even for the naked eye. Since 1992, Sweden has a unique system for private schools - they are funded with tax money. This is supposed to make every family financially able to choose a private school for their kids, and quite predictable all research on the subject indicate that too many private schools become preserves for ethnically swedish middle class kids without problems. This is the same group of pupils that 12 years later will compete with Chinese and Bulgarian students for higher education.

There are of course many kinds of private schools. Some are religious, christian or muslim, some have a pedagogical idea, more and more they are run for a profit by publicly listed companies. But if anyone can choose a private school, why do parents from certain social classes do so, while parents from other classes do not?

The system is not complicated - every pupil allocated a sum of money by the local authorities, money that are transfered to the school where he or she studies. A private school with 500 pupils will get just as much money as a public school with 500 pupils. But public schools are obliged to serve a whole community, including its less wealthy members, also kids that might have problems adapting to school.

Private schools have some benifits in the system. For example they can limit the number of pupils they accept, in order to never have "empty seats". But basically they benefit from teh fact that they will only get pupils, whose parents know enough, and are self confident enough, to make an informed choice. These pupils seldom have problems in any school system. With smaller classes, and pupils who all come from healthy families, it is not hard to create an excellent. Which attracts even more families who feel that their children belong in this environment.

For sure, many private schools teach better than many public schools. In Sweden, as everywhere in the world. The problem is not what the pupils do there. The problems are rather that these pupils and their parents are badly missed by the public schools, where they would have acted as integrators in groups where many children feel alienated from society. It is also a problem that the excellent education they get is paied for by the parents whose kids are left in struggling public schools.

I can not see how it is fair from any perspective that poor people's taxes are used to finance schools where only rich people's children go. And I can not see how it is fair from a liberal perspective to tax one group, and use the money to create a privilege for someone else. This government is neither liberal, nor conservative or socialist. It is fighting desperately for the right of a stressed Swedish intelligentia to live above the rest of the world.

That is why segregation is tolerated already in the earliest school years. That is why pupils who have the time and power to study modern languages get extra merit points for university - where their places are safeguarded against foreign competition. As if their skills and ambition would not be enough. And that is why students from Moldova will have to pay 5000 EUR/semester for something that I can get for free.

Do I sound rabid? Maybe so.. these texts were written in a mood of agitation rather than analytical camlness. Nonetheless, I am more convinced than ever that in a time of Bologna processes and internationalisations of higher education, we must understand that universities are merely the end last institutions in a long chain of schools, and that political decisions about academia can not be disentagled from school policies, that are much less internationalised.

An international perspective is necessary, though, and I could not imagine anything more useful than a global, and maybe first European debate on education in general. To get a perspective - take a look at the Bulgarian blog Blizo do bebeto, discussing elit schools in Bulgaria, and the aims of education in society in general. The post is in Bulgaria, but Google translate will help you.

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