free schools (friskola) in Sweden

Six years ago, while updating an essay on education published in Economic Affairs (December 2004), I reviewed a radical reform begun by Sweden in 1992. Sweden’s embrace of free choice and competition impressed me. Here are highlights from pp. 14 and 15 of the 2008 update.

Prior to 1992, Sweden’s school system allowed for little choice. Government assigned pupils to their closest school, and parents had little to say in the matter, short of moving to a different neighbourhood. Very few private schools existed; most were faith-based and accounted for less than one percent of students in compulsory schooling, which in Sweden is nine years starting at age 7.

In 1992 everything changed. Anyone can now open a school, and municipalities are required to finance it on the same per-pupil terms as a government school. ….

There are no restrictions on ownership of private schools. Schools can be and are run by religious groups (Christian, Jewish, Muslim), teachers’ co-operatives, parents’ co-operatives or for-profit corporations. If a registered school attracts and retains students, it receives funding from the students’ respective municipalities. Sweden has created a market for schooling, but it is a very egalitarian market because there is no price competition and each consumer has the same access to schools. Precisely because Sweden does not allow private schools to charge fees or select students, its system has attracted criticism from libertarian groups …..

By no means all Swedish parents have deserted government schools, but the private share of enrolment has increased, and came to exceed 10 percent in 2008. Surprisingly few of the new private schools are faith-based, but many are run for profit, some as chains of schools. ….

Three econometric studies [2003, 2005, 2007] have examined the effect of introduction of school choice on the quality of education in Sweden …. All three studies exploit the fact that private schooling varies by municipality, and all find that everyone gains from competition—pupils who remain in government schools as well as those who choose a private option. The reason this happens is that government schools, faced with competition from private schools, must improve their performance or lose pupils and funding.

Larry Willmore, “Basic education as a human right redux“, MPRA Paper 40478, 28 July 2008.

The private share of enrolment has reached 20% – double the proportion of students enrolled in 2008. Nonetheless, writes FT journalist Helen Warrell, many Swedes are questioning the merits of their schooling reform.

Two decades on from the audacious experiment in opening up state education to the market, a fifth of pupils, or about 312,000 children, attend [independently run free schools, known as] friskola. Of these, two-thirds go to institutions run by companies rather than co-operatives or charities ….

No other European country has entrusted so much of its children’s education to private companies. ….
Swedish schools
But as friskola have proliferated, Sweden’s confidence in for-profit schools has been shaken. Traditionally top of the class in education, Sweden has tumbled in international test rankings, with the OECD’s most recent Pisa results showing scores falling dramatically in reading, maths and science to a position well below the average for developed nations. …. [Pisa is the Programme for International Student Assessment that the OECD administers to fifteen-year old students every three years.]

One of … [the for-profit schools], Rytmus, specialises in music and has a cult following among Swedish teenagers. Lars Ljungman, its headmaster, spent 20 years teaching in the public sector before taking over the free school two years ago.

“I was curious to find out what it would be like because within the public schools it was always said that [the education companies] were so greedy, that they didn’t give to the students,” says Mr Ljungman. “I was thinking about whether I would have less money to spend on my students but on the whole, I have more to distribute for my pupils and teachers.” ….

However,… one Rytmus teacher is less complimentary. “These companies are like parasites, nothing more nothing less,” the teacher says. The expansion of the highly popular Rytmus model … is financially driven …. “Rytmus is like KFC, it is a brand. Expansion is just a way of making more profit. It is about ‘reaching future customers’.” ….

Mr [Jonas] Sjöstedt [leader of the Left party] says there is no question that profitmaking businesses are at fault for the national crisis now known as the “Pisa shock”.

“They’re not [running schools] because they like kids or because they’re interested in education,” he says. “They are doing this because they’re interested in fast money.”

Mr Sjöstedt … admits [though] that drawing a definite link between the poor Pisa results and the increase in private provision is “more complicated”.

“It’s not always the fact that the private schools get worse results … but they do harm [to the system] because traditional municipality schools have to adapt to a market system and they often lose their best pupils,” says Mr Sjöstedt.

This is the most common complaint about free choice in schooling ….. Critics contend that middle-class parents are likely to be drawn to the newer free schools, leaving poorer children stuck in poorly performing older institutions.

Helen Warrell, “Free schools: Lessons in store“, Financial Times, 28 August 2014.

Ms Warrell’s report, though interesting, omits important information and leaves many questions unanswered. A major omission is the fact that privately-run schools receive the same funding per-pupil as municipal schools, and are not allowed to charge top-up fees. Nor are schools, with rare exceptions, allowed to discriminate among applicants for admission.

There is no economic reason, then, for wealthier parents “to be drawn to the newer free schools, leaving poorer children stuck in poorly performing older institutions.” If the attraction of private schools results from advertising and branding (“like KFC”) why, then, should advertising attract a disproportionate number of children from wealthier households? Why do government schools lose their best students to private schools? Do the best students tend also to have wealthy parents?

The stark division of rich from poor, bright from dull, if true, is an anomaly of the reformed Swedish system.

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