‘Academics said a recent international example of devolving control to schools in Sweden had resulted in a marked decline in standards. The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) said the Swedish example had resulted in headteachers becoming bogged down with bureaucracy.’
That’s the opening statement in the Herald newspaper today (7.1.17) aimed at undermining SNP policy. As often before, no named academic is prepared to take the rap for this nonsense, the headline is ill-founded and the content is based on no substantive research evidence. What the RSE and the OECD spotted like most other opponents of educational reform was a correlation and not a cause. Yes, Sweden’s fall in PISA tests compared with, especially, its near neighbour Finland, happened around and after a period of greater independence for schools and head-teachers but there has been NO proper research revealing any causal link between the two. Anyhow, the idea that increased financial responsibility for the head teacher will somehow negatively impact on the performance of class teachers is ill-informed. Head teachers are commonly figureheads with real, daily, responsibility for aspects of performance devolved to a number of assistant heads and senior teachers. If somehow, this latter group were to be distracted from their duties, I might accept the potential for damage.
I’ve already explained some of the reasons for the disparity in PISA scores between the culturally similar Finland and Sweden in:
One explanation is that Finnish is written exactly as it is spoken making the development of literacy easier and so releasing time for teaching toward the PISA targets. In the same piece, I explained just how useless PISA scores are anyway. However, I also touched on but could not develop another likely reason. Sweden has ten times the immigration rate of Finland. Like UK schools with non-English speakers, Swedish schools have a significant challenge educating large numbers of pupils for whom Swedish is not their first language. This unavoidably slows the development of these pupils, cuts the time for PISA-related learning and seems likely to have harmed Sweden’s PISA performance. It was a very plausible explanation but not proven. It is now. Research by Gabriel Heller Sahlgren published in Swedish but helpfully translated in the Spectator (I know, not my usual favourite source), shows a much more convincing connection between immigration levels and falling PISA scores. Here’s a quote:
‘Two weeks ago, I published a paper at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics and an op-ed in the largest Swedish daily about the impact of immigration on Sweden’s Pisa scores. Quite a row followed. Why? Well, it turns out that the change in pupil demographics due to immigration explains almost a third of the average decline between 2000 and 2012: 19 per cent in mathematical literacy, 28 per cent in reading literacy, and 41 per cent in scientific literacy. The effect is especially pronounced in recent years, coinciding with accelerating refugee immigration. Indeed, between 2009 and 2012, 43 per cent of the average Pisa score decline is explained by altered demographics: a full 29 per cent in mathematical literacy, 45 per cent in reading literacy, and 62 per cent in scientific literacy. These are strong effects. In fact, the change in pupil demographics is the only factor that we know for sure has contributed to Sweden’s falling scores. Furthermore, the full impact is probably somewhat larger. This is because immigration may also have lowered performance among pupils with a Swedish background, for instance through the redistribution of resources to immigrant pupils.’
In 2012, the average PISA score for Swedish heritage pupils was 500 (down from 521 in 2004) while the score for other (immigrant) pupils was 446 and falling as immigration increased.
Please don’t read this as anti-immigration sentiments. I have no respect for the PISA scores and feel sure there are many social, economic and longer-term cultural benefits from a degree of immigration. My purpose here is to debunk the Herald article and, I’m sure other media coverage, which will make the same ill-informed criticism as part of an anti-SNP agenda.