Swedish-Style School Privatisation for England

The ideologues of choice and competition in schooling are at it again. Their latest miracle cure is Sweden, despite the fact that its next door neighbour Finland has the best school results in the world and doesn’t follow the free market ideology in education.

The new UK coalition government has announced that it will allow parents, teachers and charities to set up their own schools in England along the “free schools” model of Sweden. These schools will be privately run, but publicly funded. The plan also opens up state schools to be operated by for-profit companies.

While English law prohibits commercial operators taking over schools, they could provide teaching and other services to the new schools. There is nothing to stop school governors inviting commercial firms to operate state schools. Indeed, the US company Edison already operates one school in north London.

Several for-profit companies are already lining up to take advantage of the scheme. Global Management Education Systems (Gems), a company based in the United Arab Emirates that already runs 12 UK private schools, aspires to run state-funded schools in England. Anders Hultin, chief executive of Gems, said: “We are exploring opportunities right now, supporting groups of parents. That’s a natural starting point.” [ The Guardian, 25 May]

Gems is not alone. Edison, the largest provider of state-funded private schools in the US, envisages running several academies. Kunskapsskolan, which runs 30 state-funded schools in Sweden, plans to sponsor two new academies, in Richmond, south London, and Suffolk.

The new Government’s plan draws on the Swedish “free schools” model introduced in the early 1990s which allowed new schools to be set up that are independent of government control. A variety of educational providers stepped in, ranging from non-profit co-operatives and religious groups to for-profit corporations. These organisations are now running schools funded with public money through a voucher system.

The changes were introduced to provide greater choice for parents unable to afford the fees for Sweden’s small private school sector. They were based on the free-market principle that competition and choice would raise standards in all schools as government schools would be forced to improve student achievement so as to maintain enrolments.

“Free schools” now account for just over 40 per cent of the 945 upper secondary schools in Sweden and about 15% of schools teaching younger children. About 20 per cent of Swedish students attend these independent schools in the upper secondary sector. In larger urban areas such as Stockholm, half of all students attend independent schools.

There is strong evidence is that the Swedish “free school” model has failed to improve student achievement. Far from improving school results, the evidence is that student outcomes in Sweden have declined since the reforms to its education systems were introduced. The performance of its 15-year-olds has slipped steadily in international comparisons, its measures of social mobility and equity have declined, and it now lags behind other Nordic countries, having led them for decades.

Per Thulberg, Director-General of the Swedish National Agency for Education, says that the schools have “not led to better results” in Sweden [ BBC Newsnight, 8 February 2010]. He said that where these schools had improved their results, it was because the pupils they took had “better backgrounds” than those who attended the institutions the free schools had replaced.

This competition between schools that was one of the reasons for introducing the new schools has not led to better results. The lesson is that it’s not easy to find a way to continue school improvement….The students in the new schools have, in general, better standards, but it has to do with their parents and backgrounds. They come from well-educated families.

Thulberg says that Sweden cannot give the world good examples of how to run an excellent school system [ The Financial Times, 23 May 2010]. “We have had increasing segregation and decreasing results, so we can’t say that increasing competition between schools has led to better results” [ The Times Educational Supplement, 12 March 2010].

Jan-Eric Gustafsson, professor of education at Gothenburg University, says there has been a long decline in Sweden’s school results.

What we observe is a decline, especially in science and mathematics, and especially from 1995. It has been quite a steep decline, by as much as one grade, so that students in Grade 8 (age 13 to 14) in 1995 performed at the level of Grade 9 students now…..
There is increasing variation between schools. We have widened the difference between students with educated parents and those whose parents are not so highly educated, and girls who were ahead of boys in the 1990s are now even further ahead. [ The Times Educational Supplement, 12 March 2010]

Andreas Schleicher, head of education indicators at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said that although Sweden is still above the OECD average on equity, “…the slide, though not dramatic, is noteworthy” [ The Times Educational Supplement, 12 March 2010].

These conclusions are supported by academic studies. A report published by Sweden’s National Education Agency earlier this year states:

To a certain extent, trends in pupils’ attainments can be seen as a measure of how successful the various reforms have been, and, with a relatively high degree of certainty, we can conclude that grade point averages within several central subject areas have declined over time. The National Agency for Education’s own national evaluations, as well as international studies, present a broadly consistent picture of Swedish school pupils’ results in mathematics, natural sciences and reading comprehension in later years of compulsory school, showing a decline in performance since the beginning/middle of the 1990s. In the systematic review, a re-interpretation is made of the results of the international investigations conducted up to and including 1995. These new analyses indicate that levels of attainment in Swedish compulsory schools at the beginning of the 1990s were particularly high and that the decline is therefore more dramatic than earlier analyses have shown. The decline in performance of Swedish pupils has been from a previous high in international comparisons. [ What Influences Educational Achievement in Swedish Schools, p. 16]

In addition, the report also shows that achievement gaps have increased:

….the variation in results between schools and between various groups of pupils has become more pronounced. From 1993, attainment differentials have increased between various schools, particularly from 1998, when a new grade-setting procedure was introduced for the first time. The analyses have also pointed to increasing differences in grades attained by various groups of pupils (differentiated by social background, gender, and ethnicity) but most particularly between groups differentiated by parents’ educational background. [p.17]

The report says it is difficult to separate out the effects of educational changes from the effects of ongoing social change and that it is also difficult to separate out the effects of different reforms that were implemented at the same time. However, it concludes that:

……an increasing differentiation of levels of attainment coincides with comprehensive changes in the Swedish school system that have occurred since the beginning of the 1990s. [p.18]

Recent academic studies concur.

A study by academics at Stockholm University and Uppsala University published in 2008 found that the introduction of independent schools in Sweden did not increase student achievement in high schools and had no impact on the years of schooling or subsequent university attainment [Bohlmark & Lindahl 2008: 22-23]. It found a very small positive short term effect on the grade point average in year 9, but which was not sustained over the medium or longer term.

The study concluded that despite the large increase in enrolments in independent schools in Sweden between 1995 and 2003, the findings of the study show that “school choice and competition is not a panacea for improving overall educational achievement” [p.23].

Another recent technical study concluded that there was no evidence that competition from independent schools had either a positive or negative effect on the performance of public schools [Waldo 2007: 246].

A more general review published earlier this year concluded:

….17 years after the reform was enacted, it seems that it has not managed to bring decisive changes (either positive or negative) into the educational system. Despite almost 1000 new independent schools and 150,000 students attending them and many others changing between public schools, despite an intensive ideological offensive for competition and a vivid public debate on the effects, most researchers and evaluators still claim that the outcomes in terms of segregation, costs, and achievement at the national level are ambiguous or at best visible but small. [Bunar 2010: 13]

It is truly amazing how advocates of markets in education persist in ignoring evidence that rebuts their claims. Their approach is based on blind faith: “we believe; therefore it is true”. Yet, the countries that have dallied with the market in education for the longest – England, Sweden and the United States – have all failed to achieve improvements in student achievement, while inequity in student outcomes and social segregation in schools have increased.

Trevor Cobbold


Bohlmark, Anders and Lindahl, Mikael 2008. Does School Privatization Improve Educational Achievement? Evidence from Sweden’s Voucher Reform. Discussion Paper No. 3691, Institute for the Study of Labor, Bonn, September.

Bunar, Nihad 2010. Choosing for Quality or Inequality: Current Perspectives on the Implementation of School Choice Policy in Sweden. Journal of Education Policy 25: 1-18.

Slolverket 2010. What Influences Educational Achievement in Swedish Schools? Stockholm.

Waldo, Staffan 2007. Efficiency in Swedish Public Education: Competition and Voter Monitoring. Education Economics 15 (2): 231-251.

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