What will free schools mean for the quality of education — in the new schools, and in the old ones they compete with? In Sweden, they don’t have to guess. They have almost 400 free schools, and data from millions of pupils. The latest study has just been published, and has strong results that I thought might interest CoffeeHousers (you can read the whole paper here). It makes the case for Michael Gove to put the bellows under the free school movement by following Sweden and let them be run like expanding companies (that is to say, make a profit). It finds that:

1. Growth of free schools has led to better high school grades & university participation, even accounting for other factors such as grade inflation.

2. Crucially, state school pupils seem to benefit about as much as independent school ones. When ‘bog standard comprehensive’ face new tougher competition, they shape up. They know they’ll lose pupils if they don’t. As the researchers put it: ‘these positive effects are primarily due to spill-over or competition effects and not that independent-school students gain significantly more than public school students.’

3. Free schools have produced better results on the same budget. Their success cannot be put down to cash. Or, as they say, ‘We are also able to show that a higher share of independent-school students in the municipality has not generated increased school expenditures.’

4. That the ‘free school effect’ is at its clearest now because we now have a decade’s worth of development and expansion.

The survey was large: every Swedish pupil who finished school between 1988 and 2009. The researchers were able to look at grades and test score outcomes, and — crucially — follow the students as they grow older. This allowed them to ‘look at the effects on long-run outcomes such as high-school grades, university attendance and years of schooling.’

Here’s their conclusion:

‘An increase in the share of independent-school students improves average educational performance both at the end of compulsory school and in the long run in terms of high school grades, university attendance and years of schooling… These effects are very robust with respect to a number of potential issues, such as grade inflation and pre-reform trends. Interestingly, it appears that these positive effects are primarily due to spill-over or competition effects and not that independent-school students gain significantly more than public school students. Notably, because it has taken time for the independent schools to become more than a marginal phenomenon in Sweden, we have only been able to detect statistically significant positive effects for later years (about a decade after the reform). We are also able to show that a higher share of independent-school students in the municipality has not generated increased school expenditures. Hence, our positive educational performance effects are interpretable as positive effects on school productivity.’

PS Nick Pearce from the IPPR tweets that this study shows non-profit schools doing just as well as profit-seeking ones. So why do I call for profit-making schools? The answer is simple: profit-seeking schools expand far more quickly. There’s nothing wrong with running schools for charity but – as the UK shows – this means concentrations of excellence and long waiting lists. When demand exceeds supply for profit-seeking schools, they just open another one. They get help fastest, to the communities that most need it.

The point of this study is that competition between council-run schools and independent schools benefits all pupils. If England allowed its Academies to be like companies – ie, retain savings and borrow money to fund expansion –  the same could happen here. What are we waiting for?

Tags: Education, Free schools, Sweden