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History suggests that Scandinavian policies will be lost in translation


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Conservative Party proposals to allow parents, businesses or religious groups to set up 'free schools' in England have been the subject of intense debate during the election campaign. The party wants to 'copy' Sweden where, it argues, these institutions have 'driven up standards'. But there has been little focus on whether their attempt to import these policy models is appropriate in the British economic and social system, whatever their intrinsic merits. Historians of governance should point out just how selective, one-sided and ideologically-motivated such proposals really are.

Both of Britain's governing political parties have a poor track record when it comes to importing policy ideas from other countries in the era since the Second World War. In the early 1960s the Conservatives attempted to copy the success of Scandinavian housing associations; and Labour attempted to bring in national income bargaining (and thereby pay restraint) along 'Nordic' lines later that decade. The first effort at 'policy transfer' foundered on Britain's tax system, which rewarded owner-occupiers much more generously than it granted subsidies to housing associations; the second ran into the ground given the defensive localism and shop steward power of British trade unions, as well as the more complicated and diverse nature of British industry when compared with business conditions in Norway and Sweden.

'Free school' proposals are just as likely to founder on similar peculiarities. Sweden is a much more equal society than England, one less divided geographically, as well as by income and social class. It does not, on the other hand, have the ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity of England. Both sets of differences make the Scandinavian model less likely to entrench educational inequities and discrimination in their 'home' than Free Schools might if adopted in England. The history of public

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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