The Swedish for-profit ‘free’ school disaster

16 October, 2015 at 16:18 | Posted in Education & School | 2 Comments

Gustav Fridolin, Sweden’s rather youthful education minister, emerges from behind his desk in a pleasant office in central Stockholm wearing what looks like a pair of Vans and the open, fresh-faced smile of a newly qualified teacher.

gustavThe smile falters when he begins to describe the plight of Sweden’s schools and the scale of the challenge that lies ahead. Fridolin, it turns out, is the man in charge of rescuing a school system in crisis.

Sweden, once regarded as a byword for high-quality education – free preschool, formal school at seven, no fee-paying private schools, no selection – has seen its scores in Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) assessments plummet in recent years.

Fridolin acknowledges the sense of shame and embarrassment felt in Sweden. “The problem is that this embarrassment is carried by the teachers. But this embarrassment should be carried by us politicians. We were the ones who created the system. It’s a political failure,” he says …

Fridolin, who has a degree in teaching, says not only have scores in international tests gone down, inequality in the Swedish system has gone up. “This used to be the great success story of the Swedish system,” he said. “We could offer every child, regardless of their background, a really good education. The parents’ educational background is showing more and more in their grades.

“Instead of breaking up social differences and class differences in the education system, we have a system today that’s creating a wider gap between the ones that have and the ones that have not.”

Sally Weale/The Guardian

Ray Fisman has waged a similar critique against choice-based solutions in attempts to improve educational systems:

School_ChoiceWhat’s caused the recent crisis in Swedish education? Researchers and policy analysts are increasingly pointing the finger at many of the choice-oriented reforms that are being championed as the way forward for American schools. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that adding more accountability and discipline to American schools would be a bad thing, it does hint at the many headaches that can come from trying to do so by aggressively introducing marketlike competition to education …

In the wake of the country’s nose dive in the PISA rankings, there’s widespread recognition that something’s wrong with Swedish schooling … Competition was meant to discipline government schools, but it may have instead led to a race to the bottom …

It’s the darker side of competition that Milton Friedman and his free-market disciples tend to downplay: If parents value high test scores, you can compete for voucher dollars by hiring better teachers and providing a better education—or by going easy in grading national tests. Competition was also meant to discipline government schools by forcing them to up their game to maintain their enrollments, but it may have instead led to a race to the bottom as they too started grading generously to keep their students …

It’s a lesson that Swedish parents and students have learned all too well: Simply opening the floodgates to more education entrepreneurs doesn’t disrupt education. It’s just plain disruptive.

And this is what Henry M. Levin — distinguished economist and director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University — wrote when he recently reviewed the evidence about the effects of vouchers:

VouchersOn December 3, 2012, Forbes Magazine recommended for the U.S. that: “…we can learn something about when choice works by looking at Sweden’s move to vouchers.” On March 11 and 12, 2013, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences did just that by convening a two day conference to learn what vouchers had accomplished in the last two decades … The following was my verdict:

  • On the criterion of Freedom of Choice, the approach has been highly successful. Parents and students have many more choices among both public schools and independent schools than they had prior to the voucher system.
  • On the criterion of productive efficiency, the research studies show virtually no difference in achievement between public and independent schools for comparable students. Measures of the extent of competition in local areas also show a trivial relation to achievement. The best study measures the potential choices, public and private, within a particular geographical area. For a 10 percent increase in choices, the achievement difference is about one-half of a percentile. Even this result must be understood within the constraint that the achievement measure is not based upon standardized tests, but upon teacher grades. The so-called national examination result that is also used in some studies is actually administered and graded by the teacher with examination copies available to the school principal and teachers well in advance of the “testing”. Another study found no difference in these achievement measures between public and private schools, but an overall achievement effect for the system of a few percentiles. Even this author agreed that the result was trivial.
  • With respect to equity, a comprehensive, national study sponsored by the government found that socio-economic stratification had increased as well as ethnic and immigrant segregation. This also affected the distribution of personnel where the better qualified educators were drawn to schools with students of higher socio-economic status and native students. The international testing also showed rising variance or inequality in test scores among schools. No evidence existed to challenge the rising inequality.Accordingly, I rated the Swedish voucher system as negative on equity.

A recent Swedish study on the effects of school-choice concluded:

The results from the analyses made in this paper confirm that school choice, rather than residential segregation, is a more important factor determining variation in grades than is residential segregation.

voucherThe empirical analysis in this paper confirms the PISA-based finding that between-school variance in student performance in the Swedish school system has increased rapidly since 2000. We have also been able to show that this trend towards increasing performance gaps cannot be explained by shifting patterns of residential segregation. A more likely explanation is that increasing possibilities for school choice have triggered a process towards a more unequal school system. A rapid growth in the number of students attending voucher-financed, independent schools has been an important element of this process …

The idea of voucher-based independent school choice is commonly ascribed to Milton Friedman. Friedman’s argument was that vouchers would decrease the role of government and expand the opportunities for free enterprise. He also believed that the introduction of competition would lead to improved school results. As we have seen in the Swedish case, this has not happened. As school choice has increased, differences between schools have increased but overall results have gone down. As has proved to be the case with other neo-liberal ideas, school choice—when tested—has not been able to deliver the results promised by theoretical speculation.

John Östh, Eva Andersson, Bo Malmberg

For my own take on this issue — only in Swedish, sorry — see here and here.



  1. Unless a student is motivated by their parental involvement or have developed self-determination, s/he will not achieve passing or high scores on assessment measures like PISA (SAT/ACT, Regents Exams, etc) unless the teachers address group and individual differences. Only examples like Finland where teachers were paid more and the best teachers recruited to teach the learning disabled or disadvantaged groups led to high achievement on assessments. But, this was not simply a fixing of the teacher’s pecuniary interests, teacher preparation programs became more rigorous, administrative measures were adopted to address consistency across all subjects and grades, students’ motivational capacity to maintain a constant effort, and non-pecuniary factors throughout the educational system were introduced, reformed at all levels of the educational system to root out the biases for the privileged and against the less privileged.

  2. […] The Swedish for-profit ‘free’ school disaster […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Blog at
Entries and comments feeds.