2002 Report revisited

Swedish Free schools are  non-selective, competition drives up standards and free schools don’t harm municipal schools


The anti-Academies Alliance ,Compass, the left wing lobby group, along with  some  parents, teachers, union activists  and local  councillors  are doing all they can to try to   limit the expansion of both Academies and free schools .The inspiration for free schools comes from both America, in the form of Charter schools and Swedens ‘free schools’. The Swedish free schools  example has been particularly problematic for the left because  its social democratic model ,combining as it does  a strong egalitarian, civil society  with a generous  welfare state,  underpinned by solid economic performance over the longer term, has been much admired by the left and championed as a model of how socialism can combine with capitalism to deliver equity. But breaking the state monopoly in education  in 1992 allowing a market in schools in which private providers could run local schools paid for by the taxpayer was a step too far for many on the left. So Swedens schools have been attacked not so much in terms of  their performance which can easily be shown to be better on average  than municipal schools  but because some perceive them as creating division and a two tiered system , so that they are socially divisive   indeed much the same criticism as has been meted out to both Academies and free schools here.    Evidence is sought by both sides of the argument but it is worth re-visiting  the seminal independent research of  F. Mikael Sandström and Fredrik Bergström  ‘ School vouchers in practice: Competition won’t hurt you! 2002’ The Research Institute of Industrial Economics, Stockholm

Their research examines in considerable academic  detail what effects  competition from independent schools  have on public schools. To recap, under the Swedish system, municipal schools and independent schools receive public financing on close to equal terms. Provided that they fulfil certain basic requirements, all kinds of schools are eligible, including religious schools and schools run by profit corporations .In order to receive public funds, they must pledge not to charge an additional tuition fee from the students .Further, the freedom in setting the rules of admission is limited. They must be open to all children. So they may not base admission on ability or on religious or ethnic origin. In short these schools, and this apparently has to be spelt out again and again,  are non-selective. Among the approved schools are schools owned by teacher or parent cooperatives, non-profit organizations and privately owned firms. The municipalities are allowed to give an opinion on whether they consider the establishment of an independent school to be harmful to existing schools, and their views are taken into account by the National Agency for Education. However, the

municipalities have no veto, and are bound by law to finance an independent school once it has been approved. Enrolment in independent schools, at the compulsory school level, ranges between zero and almost twenty per cent.

To cut a fairly long story short, and the report is fairly complex to the layman, the researchers address the claim that increased competition between schools  is beneficial to educational quality. They find that ‘A number of empirical studies have shown this argument to be valid. The present study confirms the finding that greater competition improves the standards of public schools.’ So, surrounding  municipal schools improved in direct proportion to the competition. Increasing the percentage of  pupils  educated in a free school by 1 percent produced an improvement in results of all  pupils  equivalent to a 5 percent increase in funding

The second  key conclusion of  Sandstrom and Bergstrom is  “ A widespread concern among opponents of school choice is that competition will hurt the public schools. The present study shows this fear to be without foundation”




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