Sara Hjelm is a reader of this blog. She wrote to me about the state of Swedish schools a few weeks ago and her deeply-felt concerns about the reforms now occurring in her country. As a retired teacher she sees the blending of school choice and vouchers as a reform strategy that, in her opinion, harms the nation’s schools.
Usually, I do not publish descriptions and critiques of schools in other countries but I was taken by Hjelm’s voice as a teacher, her critique of choice and vouchers, and an advocate for better schools.
As a preface for readers unfamiliar with the state system of schooling in Sweden, I begin with a description of earlier Parliamentary reforms aimed at improving Swedish schools. Then I offer portions of what Sara Hjelm has written about these reforms. Hjelm gave me permission to use portions of her email.
Background of Swedish System
“Sweden adopted a nationwide universal voucher program in 1992 as part of a series of reforms designed to give more control over education to towns and schools. Families can choose any school, public or private. Taxpayer money follows the student. This voucher system has led to a burgeoning industry of mostly for-profit, private schools, also called ‘free schools.'” Two of the companies that run schools in Sweden are listed on the country’s stock exchange.”*
“In contrast to American private schools, “free schools” don’t charge tuition — they draw on government funds to operate — and are required to follow Sweden’s national curriculum. They’re more comparable to American charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. About 18 percent of Swedish students are enrolled in “free schools;” in comparison, charter schools enroll 6 percent of American students.
In 2000, Swedish students performed well-above average on an international test called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). By 2012, they were below average in math, reading and science. Sweden had the steepest decline of any participating country over that time period. (There were 65 participating countries that year.) In 2015, the scores rose to meet international averages, but Sweden’s performance remains far below what it once was. The drop has prompted a flurry of debate in the country about what led to the decline and whether the growth of “free schools” is to blame.
Critics of Sweden’s ‘free schools’ which are private point to the fact that public school students outperformed students at private schools (after controlling for socioeconomic status) as proof that ‘free schools’ contributed disproportionately to the lagging results. Others say that the declines can’t be blamed on ‘free schools’ – it’s impossible to parse out the impact of choice compared to other reforms made at the same time, such as decentralizing the education system. Some studies have found that outcomes for all students are better in areas with a greater number of ‘free schools,’ while other research suggests that the presence of ‘free schools’ has no positive long-term effects for students….
In theory, the market was supposed to act as its own accountability measure; competition would mean that low-quality schools would close, said Jonas Vlachos, an economics professor at the University of Stockholm who has studied ‘free schools.’
“The tension that you see is that if you’re very … laissez-faire about who can run a school, you will end up in a situation that you need more regulation,” Vlachos said, adding that Sweden largely trusts its schools to hold themselves accountable. “It’s glaringly obvious that you can’t really do it like this.” **
Sara Hjelm wrote the following:
Being retired after working as a teacher, school leader and administrator in the Swedish school system some 43 yrs altogether and dealing with every possible level of students and teaching during that time, I should be able to look back and reflect on past reforms and changes, but the dire current situation leaves me no real option to do so. The present school system and school policies in Sweden have reached a point where it feels like time is running out. The other night I sat down and wrote a text in English in sheer frustration….
In Sweden all child and adolescent education is paid for by tax money distributed by municipalities:
- Granted place in kindergarten/daycare when the time for parent leave runs out
- Compulsory schooling with a general state curriculum consists of a) preschool for 6 year olds, b) primary 7-9 and 10-13 with one class teacher for each level, c) 14-16 with subject teachers.
- Gymnasium/upper secondary, 3 years for 16-18 year olds, voluntary but in a way not since almost all attend. You choose a school and one of several upper secondary “programs”, preparing for university or giving vocational training, and the municipality or free school decides on what grounds to accept applicants. Here the free schools usually offer what is cheap to arrange, academic programs that don’t crave special rooms or equipment or vocational training where most of it can be completed as an apprentice. The municipalities have to offer all programs according to demand, in collaboration regionally or by themselves in larger cities.
Hjelm criticizes private firms running schools.
The huge private for profit school companies exist on all these levels, competing for student vouchers. Largest part is in the upper secondary where more than 30% of students today attend such a free school. By cherry-picking “easy” students through aggressive marketing to parents (we offer good behavior, academic excellence, high grades, etc.) they attract students that are more or less self going and enable a profit for shareholders or owner consortiums by keeping wages low, having large groups, substituting some teaching for on-line learning, employing teachers from abroad on short term contracts and more hours of teaching, etc.
As a result real student achievements and school climate are mediocre, about the same as in municipal schools and with a considerable grade inflation to that according to PISA and national tests. Students from municipal upper secondary schools have a slightly lower grade point average than students from free upper secondary schools, but still generally show higher performance and less dropouts during the first year of higher education.
There are also plenty of examples of parents told that their child does not really fit in, that the support needed is not available and they should seek a more suitable school. With a queue system for admission on compulsory level, where you can put your baby in line at birth, they keep all groups filled. And being private businesses they only have to share whatever follow up data they choose due to international business and stock market legislation of secrecy. If a school is not as profitable as expected it can simply close down with short notice or apply for bankruptcy when as much monetary resources as possible have been moved somewhere else in the organization. Stranded students are the municipality’s responsibility. The risk is minimal. At least for now.
The state level answers with rules and attempts to control, resulting in growing administration and accountability that in the end is up to individual schools, their heads and teachers, with endless data drops and documentation to keep their backs free when inspected and avoid fines from the inspectorate – which is also a backward way to handle people struggling and certainly does not help. But, this is all a monetary system, not so much about students’ learning…..
The municipalities and their school heads must cater for all and are left with empty desks here and there and a larger part of students in need of help and support, hence the growing segregation and diminishing equity – an impossible equation for those who have to deal with it. But if politicians choose to give their struggling schools more resources they have to pay the free schools the municipality’s higher average money per student retrospectively according to the present legislation that says equality of resources.
To avoid extra costs and higher taxes politicians usually don’t add resources. Instead they cut resources in every possible way, naming it introduction of more effective or efficient management and practice, giving smaller parts back for development activities to look good, but still in the end minus some percentages of resources every year. And now, after 25 years, there is simply not more to take….
I think it’s important that people abroad should know that these actors are now searching for investments abroad, buying schools in Spain, kindergartens in Germany and Netherlands, etc. Wherever loopholes in regulating legislation can be found. And they have all the strategies tried out.
But profit is what venture capital funds are for … so no surprise.
*Tino Sanandaji, Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Stockholm, “Sweden Has an Educational Crisis, But It Wasn’t Caused by School Choice” 2014.
**Sarah Butrymowicz, The Hechinger Report“Is Sweden Proof That School Choice Doesn’t Improve Education?,” Februrary 28, 2018.