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Helen Simpson

How our kids fail

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I never imagined how a country, socialist-orientated in so many ways, could administer quality education. Fortunately, when I got the chance to spend my final year of high school in Sweden , I was pleasantly surprised.

The first thing I noticed upon entering a Swedish classroom was the unique atmosphere of freedom. There were no uniforms, teachers were addressed by their first names and many students seemed genuinely interested in what was being taught. They respected teachers not because they were told to, but because the teachers had earned it. Rudeness and disobedience towards teachers was an extremely rare occurrence.

One of the first questions I was asked by the principal was what subject line I wanted to take. Unsure of what she meant, I rattled off some of my interests. The next day I learnt that my subjects for the year were to include philosophy, psychology, politics, mathematics, English, Swedish, film, geography and fine arts. I couldn’t have asked for better unless I was at a university. The idea of subject lines is that they allow students to pursue their unique skills and passions. Any student aged fifteen and upwards has the chance to specialise in a subject range of their choice, from mechanics to humanities, fine arts, environmental science and much more. One of my friends could speak five languages. Another built a car in his final year of school. I found that, despite the usual complaints about school, many of my friends seemed genuinely interested in attending school. There were few, if any, repercussions for missing days at school, but I seldom witnessed students skipping classes.

Sweden ’s remarkable atmosphere of freedom and choice is a direct consequence of their school voucher system, which allocates a portion of money (proportionate to the average cost of educating a child in a state school) to every parent to allow them to select the school of their choice.

An essential read for any critic of public education systems is Bruce Goldberg’s Why Schools Fail. As Goldberg points out, it is the failure of the education system to recognise individuality that presents a great problem. ‘What careful observation of children actually shows’, writes Goldberg, ‘is that great harm is done when there is a systematic suppression of a child’s interest, values, and idiosyncratic potentials. Indeed, it is the denial of individuality, the idea that everyone must follow some general plan, that is at the core of the failure of schools.’1

Goldberg is right. Interest is a vital motivator for any student- and is the main reason why our universities have evolved to create such a diverse range of subjects. Why, then, does subject choice continue to stagnate in many of our schools? One reason is incentive. Just as in any financial endeavour, if a company or organisation has no incentive to provide quality service and choice to customers, then they are unlikely to do so. Likewise, if schools have little financial incentive to provide quality and diversity to students, the same outcome develops.

The root of the problems with our education system lies in our political system. In New Zealand, any parent who chooses to send their child to a private school must pay twice for their child’s education. The system disadvantages those who can’t afford to go to private schools through the possibility of poorer education standards, and it disadvantages the parents of those who can. It also disadvantages anyone who has the vision and passion to set up their own school, because few parents can afford the extra (and astronomical) costs needed to fund independent schools. Sweden ’s voucher system, though not without its problems, has created a system in which schools have a reason to provide quality education to its students. It also gives students the opportunity to attend a private or a public school depending on what’s best for them.

Research has found that the number of independent schools has increased dramatically since Sweden introduced a voucher system. A BBC education correspondent wrote in 2004 that the number of independent schools had risen from virtually none prior to reform, to over 800.2 State schools have improved because competition between them and the rising number of independent schools has provided a motivation for them to do so.3 And, interestingly, it is the poor who have taken the greatest advantage of the new system by choosing independent schools at a higher rate than wealthier families.4

I want to see a New Zealand in which all minds can flourish. I envisage an education system which, like Sweden , encourages an environment in which every individual has his or her educational needs catered for according to their unique abilities. Parental and student choice is an imperative force in creating and maintaining a vibrant educational atmosphere.

  1. Bruce Goldberg, Chapter 1, ‘Is Educational Theory Scientific?’ from Why Schools Fail. Washington , D.C. , Cato Institute, 1996, p.3. 
  2. Mike Baker, ‘Swedish Schools Enjoy School Choice, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/3717744.stm. Last updated 5 October 2004.
  3. Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, ‘School Choice Works! The case of Sweden ’, http://www.friedmanfoundation.org/news/2003-01-06.html. January 6, 2003. 
  4. ibid.