Tuesday, November 01, 2005

School choice in Sweden

There is a tendency on the left in Britain to praise all things Scandinavian and demand that their social policies be adopted here. Polly Toynbee is the most prominent practitioner of this approach, which I once characterised as "pining for the fjords".

The introduction to this article from the New Statesman last year puts it more kindly: "There is a law of the Labour back benches: if they do it in Sweden, it must be all right."

That article looks at the Swedish experience of school vouchers. This policy was introduced by one of the country's short-lived right-wing administrations, but has been maintained by later social democrat governments.

It suggests that encouraging more independent providers of schools within the state system in Britain need not be the disaster that some Liberal Democrats fear:

Up to the late 1980s, Swedish education was highly centralised. Central government controlled finance, overall educational goals and the curriculum. Yet over the next few years, the school system became one of the most decentralised in the EU. In 1992, education vouchers were introduced, allowing parents a free choice of schools. The vouchers represent up to 75 per cent of the per-student cost of the local state school and can be taken to any approved private school, whether profit-making or not, denominational or not. The Stockholm-based Research Institute of Industrial Economics has found that the competition has led to improved standards in state schools and that vouchers have not led to greater advantages for the more affluent: on the contrary, poor Swedes choose independent schools in greater numbers than rich Swedes.

The reforms were set up by a conservative-led government, but were sustained and amplified under succeeding social-democratic administrations. The number of private schools - privately operated rather than fully privatised: they get state funding according to the numbers enrolled - has grown rapidly. In some urban areas as many as 30 per cent of all children attend them.

I hold no brief for the voucher mechanism, but I do believe that choice and diversity are Liberal virtues and find a system like the Swedish one attractive.


Liberal Neil said...

Indeed the system in Sweden does seem to work well.

As does the fact that they spend half as much again per pupil as we do and thus have classes half the size.

They also have a much longer period of pre-school education than we do which most of the evidence suggests works well. They start formal schooling at 6 years old.

Jonathan Calder said...


That all sounds admirable.

Would you welcome a diversity of providers if it could be made to work, or does it worry you in principle?

Bishop Hill said...


If your points are to be valid reasons for the improvement noted, then you would need to show that none of these things were in place before the reforms took place.

While I don't know, I would guess that high education spending and late starts to formal schooling have always been features of the Swedish education system. If I'm right then the improvement has to be due to vouchers.

Liberal Neil said...

JC - I am relaxed about having a diversity of providers. My concern is that there are limits on the practicalities of allowing the market to dictate everything. I don't know all the details of how the Swedish system works but it is not a simple free market.

BH - I think you risk being simplistic. If the only change that has taken place in Sweden is the switch to vouchers then, yes, it may be a simple direct causality. However it may be because vouchers work well in the existing Swedish context, or it may be because there are other factors at play as well.

It certainly does show that we shouldn't treat a voucher system as a bogeyman.