Category Archives: education

Private schools — the Danish model

Sorø Akademi
Sorø Akademi by Alexander Hundegger, on Flickr.
According to Twitter, people are starting to look again at the rather low taxes that private schools have to pay.

However, from a Danish perspective it’s rather interesting that the only support private schools get from the state is a bit of tax relief. Although Denmark can seem rather socialist compared to the UK, private schools have for many years enjoyed huge support from the state to ensure that their fees are affordable for most people.

In the UK, private schools have to charge ridiculously high fees simply to have the same budget as their public-sector counterparts. The result is that private schools to a large extent reflect and reenforce the class system, rather than being about providing different educational experiences.

In England, Michael Gove’s free schools get the same funding as state schools, but they cannot charge any additional fees. Interestingly, the result has been that they exist completely separately from the old-fashioned private schools — I had naïvely expected the two groups of schools to merge gradually, but that doesn’t seem to be happening at all.

I’m quite fond of the Danish system because it effectively makes private schools public-sector schools with slightly different educational focuses, rather than being clubs for rich people’s kids.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if Scotland introduced a variant of the Danish system? Basically, private schools should get the same funding as state schools (just like the English free schools), but they should be allowed to charge small fees on top of this (e.g., up to £100/month). At the same time, tax relief and charity status could be removed from existing private schools to force them into the new system. In this way, private schools would quickly lose their poshness, so it would lead to a much more egalitarian outcome than the status quo.

PS: This blog post is based on growing up in Denmark (but attending a state school) — it’s quite possible that things have changed to some extent since I left the country.

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Why I’ll be voting Yes on Thursday

Although I’ve written hundreds of blog posts over the past couple of years, I’ve never described my personal journey to Yes. With just a few days to go before the referendum, here it is.

Getting to know Scotland

When I moved to Scotland from Denmark in 2002, I hadn’t thought much about Scottish independence, but I was broadly in favour of it. It would be hard not to when you come from a successful independent country the same size as Scotland.

Yes Scotland's first annual Independence rally
Yes Scotland’s first annual Independence rally, a photo by PhylB on Flickr.
However, at first I wasn’t really aware of the differences between Scotland and the other UK nations. I think I thought the differences were mainly cultural and linguistic, but I gradually started to notice the differences were much more fundamental than that, that Scotland really isn’t just another region of Britain (something which most English people never seem to have realised).

Indeed, surprisingly to foreigners, most Scots seem to consider Scotland to be a country within a political union called the UK. Sometimes believed to be too wee, too poor and too stupid to be independent, perhaps, but a country nonetheless. This is very different from how the UK is seen abroad. In most languages, ‘Britain’, ‘the UK’ and ‘England’ are used with exactly the same meaning. For instance, I have often received letters from Denmark addressed to ‘…, Glasgow, Scotland, England’.

The reason that it took me a long time to work out that Scotland wasn’t just a region wasn’t helped by the media. At first I watched BBC News, Channel 4 News and all that, and it took me some time to realise that half the news stories they were reporting weren’t relevant to Scotland. (Thank goodness I picked The Scotsman as my daily newspaper — I could just as easily have gone for The Independent!) The lack of devolution of the media is bizarre — it should have been a very easy thing to devolve.

However, once you start to realise that Scotland is indeed a country, a lot of things fall into place. You also start noticing how the native culture of Scotland is considered inferior by many people. For instance, although I had learnt some Gaelic before moving to Scotland, I only really started learning Scots after I moved here. It was very difficult, however, because most people will look at you like you’ve got three heads when you speak Scots with a foreign accent. It’s such a strange situation — a language that is spoken by almost half of the population but that people treat as an embarrassing dialect. The language of Dunbar and Burns, for crying out loud! It should be celebrated and be an obligatory subject in all schools as far as I’m concerned!

A political journey

During my first few years in Scotland, very little seemed to happen on the independence front. The SNP wasn’t getting close to power, and I started to think there would never be a majority in favour of independence in the Scottish Parliament (those were the days before Salmond returned to Holyrood), and so I gradually started thinking that perhaps a more realistic solution would be a reformed UK — a written constitution, proportional representation in Westminster, proper federalism, an elected House of Lords. I even joined the Liberal Democrats, thinking they had the determination to reform the broken union.

However, I rapidly grew disillusioned with the LibDems. I think it started when they refused even to sit down with the SNP in 2007 to explore whether a coalition could be formed. It started dawning on me that their commitment to federalism was just skin-deep, and that their real instincts were pro-Union and pro-Empire.

When the LibDems entered government with the Tories, I was initially hopeful that they would manage to get some meaningful reforms out of it. However, they repeatedly got outsmarted by the Conservatives. The introduction of tuition fees was of course a huge betrayal, but from a Scottish perspective it was even worse that they failed to introduce the AV system and to reform the House of Lords. Clearly the voting system referendum should have been about proportional representation (and not AV) if the Tories were going to be campaigning against it — AV should only have been accepted if the Tories committed themselves to campaigning in its favour.

More importantly, if the UK political system couldn’t even implement such a minor reform, what hope was there of ever enacting the far bolder reforms that I considered necessary?

These political events (on top of the Iraq war and the numerous other scandals that New Labour presided over) convinced me that the UK was a failed state that couldn’t be reformed. Many political parties seem quite idealistic when they’re far from power, but as soon as they get involved with the civil servants, they become part of the establishment machine and become carbon clones of the previous government.

In the meantime, the SNP had demonstrated that they could do things differently at Holyrood, and as a result they gained an absolute majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, which then made an independence referendum an inevitability. I finally realised that I was a member of the wrong party, and I joined the SNP.

A different journey

At the same time I had been pursuing a career at a large publishing house in Bishopbriggs. Every other year, a redundancy round would move more of the best-paid jobs down to London, and I realised that you can only progress so far in your career in Scotland — at some point, you need to spend some years — or even the rest of your career — in London.

This might seem obvious to Scots, but to a Dane like me it was hugely shocking. Unless you want to be CEO of a multinational company, Danes expect they can have fulfilling and rewarding careers without leaving Denmark. If people do move abroad for work reasons, there’s not a single destination that dominates — Brussels, London, Berlin, New York, Oslo and Zürich are all equally likely.

I also fell in love with one of my colleagues, and one thing led to another. With five children in the house, I now see the educational aspect of devolution, too. Because they’re at Scottish schools, you can’t easily move to England for a couple of years, and you worry whether they can have a good career here. You also notice that the school holidays here aren’t in sync with the BBC’s school holiday programming and with the back-to-school products in supermarkets. The separate school system is making it hard to move to England and back, but you need to do that for your career. In this regard, the current system gives us the worst of both worlds.

Reforming the UK

If it was likely that the UK would be fundamentally reformed soon, my natural instinct would be to give it a chance. However, given that very few meaningful reforms have happened after more than a decade of Labour governments followed by a coalition government that includes the Liberal Democrats, I cannot see where the willingness to reform the UK will come from.

The main political parties in Westminster don’t seriously want to overhaul the system (because it’s working exceptionally well for the Westminster and City of London elites), and there’s not even a party that can carry the beacon of hope (in the way the LibDems did before 2010). The only untested party that has a chance of gaining power within the next decade is UKIP, and that will most certainly be a change for the worse!

If we have a choice between being part of a failed state or a new, potentially very successful one, the choice is easy.

Some people have suggested that the main diving line between people voting Yes and No is whether they feel Scottish or British. This national identity question is not what makes me a Yes. I don’t feel British in the slightest — I would probably describe myself as a Danish-Swabian-Scottish European, but I’m not against unions per se.

If somebody suggested creating a single country out Denmark, Norway and Sweden, I would look carefully at the proposal. If the new Scandinavian Union could achieve things that the existing countries couldn’t do themselves, and if all three countries were going to get a fair share of political power, I might be in favour. If, on the other hand, the Union simply meant putting Stockholm in charge of Denmark and Norway too, making Swedish the official language in all three countries, and the main benefit of the Union was to give the Swedish generals a bigger army to wage wars with, I would most definitely be against it.

The same applies to the UK. I haven’t found any area where we’re better together inside the UK. Externally, the UK might be stronger than its constituent parts when the country tries to punch above its weight in the UN and on the world stage generally, but unfortunately the result is not anything that furthers peace, democracy and the rule of law elsewhere on the planet, and what’s the point then?

Scotland can lead the way

Then what? Nordic Horizons!
It’s also very clear that Scotland and the majority of the rUK have very different visions for the future. An independent Scotland would want to retain and improve the welfare state (the Common Weal), whereas the rUK (led by London) is on its way to becoming a terribly unequal global city state. I believe Scotland could even inspire the other Nordic countries, where a certain degree of welfare state apathy has set in, but where Scotland’s experiences with living under Thatcher and Cameron will galvanise the resolve to do better.

What I want

I want to live in a rich, egalitarian country. Where my children can have a decent career without moving away. Where a welfare state provides healthcare and education for everybody. Where people get a hand when they’re down instead of being kicked further down. Where important rights are guaranteed by a constitution. Where immigrants are welcomed because most families consist of immigrants and emigrants. Where people are focusing on building the best small country in the world, not feeling disempowered and disenfranchised. Where nobility has been abolished, and ideally where the monarchy has been voted out too. A country that is growing at a normal speed, rather than seeing all other countries overtake it. A country that is a happy EU member state, not suffering from the Little Englander syndrome. A politically normal country, where people discuss the economy and foreign policy, not independence all the time.

The choice is simple. It has to be Yes.

(I haven’t mentioned the currency of Scotland, the transition costs or anything like this, because those aren’t reasons to vote Yes or No to independence — they’re purely practical problems to be resolved.)

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How to keep Scottish universities free after independence

Foam Fight_3946
Foam Fight_3946, a photo by Sarah Ross photography on Flickr.
The following is a reworked and updated version of this old blog post:

At the moment, the main reason why English students are not all going to university in Scotland (where university tuition is free, compared to English universities that will typically charge £27,000 for a 3-year degree) is that Scottish universities charge them up to £27,000 for their degree. This is only possible because the EU rule about not discriminating against EU students only applies to students from other EU countries (such as Ireland, Denmark or Bulgaria) and not to students from other parts of the UK (England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

As soon as Scotland regains her independence, rUK students become EU students and will have to be treated in the same way as students from Scotland.

This is an area where the Scottish Government’s White Paper is a bit vague, and many unionists have now started claiming that Scotland will have no choice but to introduce tuition fees after independence (see this article by Severin Carrell for details).

However, some lessons can be learnt from Scandinavia, where the closely related languages in theory make it easy for students to study in the other Nordic countries, and EU rules mean these foreign students can’t be discriminated against based on citizenship.

Denmark used to have great problems in this area. For instance, large numbers of Swedes used to study medicine in Copenhagen and then go home straight after graduation. In 2007, Denmark therefore did two things (link in Danish): (1) They changed the number of advanced highers (“højniveaufag”) a student needs to pass to get a grade top-up, which benefited Danes in comparison with Swedes. (2) They changed the way they translated Swedish grades into Danes ones (that is, they made it harder for them to get in).

Apart from this, Denmark pays generous grants (typically £7616 per year) to university students who were living in Denmark prior to starting university. (Denmark used to require students to have lived there for at least five years in order to qualify, but this is an area that the EU is currently clamping down on.)

Scotland could copy some of these policies after independence.

There are already plenty of differences between A Levels and Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers, so it would be easy to tweak the entry requirements to make it harder for rUK students to get into Scottish universities. Scotland could also introduce a new grading system different from the one used in the rUK, which would then need to be converted. The very best rUK students would of course still get in, but that would be to Scotland’s advantage anyway. (The rUK might retaliate and make it harder for Scottish students to get into their universities, but you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.)

Scotland could also introduce tuition fees for everybody, but cancel out the effect by creating grants for Scottish citizens and residents. However, as I wrote above, the EU is not too happy about creating too many restrictions in this area.

In an ideal world such measures shouldn’t be necessary, but until it dawns on the English that they’re shooting themselves in the foot by pricing bright young people out of universities, I fear that Scotland will have to take a leaf out of Denmark’s book.

Finally, England is the odd man out in the EU when it comes to tuition fees. Most EU countries have either no fees or very low ones. Scotland might be able to convince the other countries that England’s sky-high fees are distorting the free movement of students and that restrictions have to be placed on English students until England lowers its fees. This would be an ideal solution.

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Taking the independence campaign into schools

valg2007.01
valg2007.01, a photo by kurtpedersen54 on Flickr.
Lots of people are upset that Better Together are planning to send campaign packs to schools (my emphasis):

[T]he pro-Union Better Together campaign said it would be sending a teacher-resource pack, including lesson plans, research materials and a mock debate kit, to every school in the country.

[…]

Ross MacRae, Better Together’s youth co-ordinator, said his group’s teaching packs would be as “non-partisan as possible”.

“It’s less about our message. The first lesson is about referendums. We’re just giving them the resources. They do reflect our message, but it’s up to the teachers how to use it.

I’ve been wondering for a while why both Yes Scotland and Better Together seemed to be ignoring high schools as a potential battleground.

Because very few Scottish high school students are over 18 by the time they leave school, it appears the schools have got used to being campaigning-free zones.

In Denmark, on the other hand, secondary school students are typically between 15 and 20 years old, so you’d expect roughly half of them to have the right to vote in a general election. Because of this, Danish high schools are often full of political campaigning. For instance, in the run-up to a general election, there will normally be at least one huge debate featuring politicians from all parties debating in the atrium in front of all the students (not just the ones doing modern studies).

If Better Together proceed with their plan, I think Yes Scotland will have to send their own teacher resource packs to the schools, too — it will be a huge mistake to allow Better Together to do this unchallenged.

However, I believe it would be much better for Yes Scotland and Better Together to team up and create resource packs together, containing both neutral information and the views from both sides. In addition to these packs, they could offer to send debaters out to schools (whether professional politicians or young activists), so that the schools don’t have to spend time trying to organise a debate with equal number of debaters from both sides.

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How to minimise the number of students from England after independence

At the moment, the main reason why English students are not all going to university in Scotland (where university tuition is free, compared to English universities that will typically charge £27,000 for a 3-year degree) is that Scottish universities charge them up to £27,000 for their degree. This is only possible because the EU rule about not discriminating against EU students only applies to students from other EU countries (such as Ireland, Denmark or Bulgaria) and not to students from other parts of the UK (England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

As soon as Scotland regains her independence, rUK students become EU students and will have to be treated in the same way as students from Scotland.

However, some lessons can be learnt from Scandinavia. Denmark in theory has to treat Swedish students the same as Danish ones, but this is not the whole truth.

Denmark used to have a big problem with too many Swedes studying medicine in Copenhagen and then going home after graduation. In 2007, Denmark therefore did two things (link in Danish): (1) They changed the number of advanced highers (“højniveaufag”) a student needs to pass to get a grade top-up, which benefitted Danes in comparison with Swedes. (2) They changed the way they translated Swedish grades into Danes ones (that is, they made it harder for them to get in).

Apart from this, Denmark pays generous grants (typically £7616 per year) to university students who are either Danish citizens, have lived in Denmark for five years prior to starting university, or who have parents that are EU citizens and have moved to Denmark for work reasons. Other students don’t get a penny.

Scotland could copy some of these policies after independence. There are already plenty of differences between A Levels and Scottish Highers to provide opportunities for tweaking the entry requirements to make it harder for English students to get into Scottish universities (the brilliant ones would of course still get in, but that would be to Scotland’s advantage anyway), and Scotland could introduce tuition fees for everybody, but cancel out the effect by creating grants for Scottish citizens and long-term residents.

In an ideal world such measures shouldn’t be necessary, but until it dawns on the English that they’re shooting themselves in the foot by pricing bright young people out of universities, I fear that Scotland will have to take a leaf out of Denmark’s book.

Update (May 2013): Denmark’s rule about only giving grants to long-term residents has been found unlawful by the EU Court of Justice. Now everybody who has moved to Denmark in order to work (even if only for the summer holidays before starting university) has the right to get Danish grants when studying in Denmark.

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