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Coffee House

Swedish for-profit schools — what’s the story?

20 June 2012

2:15 PM

20 June 2012

2:15 PM

Ahead of The Spectator’s schools revolution symposium next Tuesday (click here for details and tickets) we are running a series of articles about school reform. The below is a Swedish take on Swedish reform.

Is the Swedish model of profit-making schools going wrong? Michael Gove’s critics have started to say so, and British teachers unions warn that it has been shown to lead to all manner of ills — social segregation, deteriorating school results and simply bad schools — and that it would be a calamity for Britain to copy a failing model.

We Swedes listen to the British debate with fascination. The issue of profit-seeking schools was truly divisive — once. Then, these schools turned out to be so popular with parents that every political party (apart from the former Communists) has now dropped its opposition to a model which combines profit-seeking and choice with public funding.

The issue is, in Sweden, no longer a matter of theory. We have hundreds of for-profit schools, some not-for-profit and the majority of pupils are in council-run schools. This means that the education debate can be informed by hard facts. And, perhaps better than any academic study, the choices made by tens of thousands of parents who now have a choice of school.

Compare Swedish &”free schools” to council-run schools and you will find:

The school results achieved by voucher schools are better, in primary as well as secondary schools, no matter what measurement is used.  

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The parents with pupils in free schools are significantly more satisfied with their school.

As British think tank IEA has shown, Swedish for-profit voucher schools have been more successful at improving student performance, especially for pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.

Council-run schools facing competition from voucher schools perform better than those facing no such competition.

The schools achieving really bad results are, with few exceptions, council-run ones. Out of the 50 worst-performing Swedish schools, 47 are run by the municipality.

As for segregation: the voucher system offers any pupil growing up in a neighborhood with a bad school the opportunity to choose a better one. Before the reform, those unlucky enough to be born in the &”wrong” place were simply prohibited from choosing something better. As can be expected, the Swedish spread in socio-economic composition between schools is among the lowest in the OECD, and has decreased since 2000.

The share of pupils from immigrant families is not lower in voucher schools.

Voucher schools use their resources more efficiently, achieving better results per Swedish taxpayer Krona spent.

Now, it’s true — alas — that Sweden is falling in the OECD world league education tables. But it is strange to hear this used as an indictment of the profit-seeking model In Britain when 87 per cent of Swedish children are still educated by council-run schools. In Britain, it’s 93 per cent — and no one would take Britain’s just-as-bad descent through the PISA ranking tables as an indictment of British private schools.

So while there is much debate about schooling in Sweden, there is no serious discussion about abolishing the profit-motive for Swedish voucher schools. The new leader of the Social Democrats, Stefan Löfven, has made very clear that banning profit-seeking schools is not an option.

This leads us to the peculiar position where the Swedish Social Democrats are more pro-market, on this issue, than the British Conservatives. These schools, the pupils and their parents, are making the case for liberalization. It’s not about profit, it’s about power: and the profit principle has proven the surest way to expand success. To take power away from bureaucrats and put it where it belongs: with parents. It can be done in Britain, too.

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