‘Free Schools’ Will Increase Social Segregation

The new UK coalition government is rushing legislation through to allow parents, teachers and charities to set up their own schools in England from next year. The schools are modelled on the privately run, but publicly funded, “free schools” operating in Sweden. They are also similar to charter schools operating in the United States.

A leading academic has warned that they are likely to lead to increased social segregation in schools. Dr Susanne Wiborg, from the Institute of Education at the University of London, said that several studies show that school choice in Sweden has “augmented social and ethnic segregation, particularly in relation to schools in deprived areas”.

Dr. Wiborg 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.

“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.”

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”.

“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.”

She also says it could lead to many private providers running schools, but who have no background in education. 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.

In Sweden, the biggest provider of free schools is a dog food manufacturer called John Bauer, which runs 27 schools. There are a number of private firms who were already interested in setting up free schools in England including a Dubai-based company called Gems.

From BBC News, 22 July 2010. For the full report see Free schools could widen social divide.

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