Going for “Sweden Plus” in education

Proposals to adopt Swedish-style education reforms, put forward by the Conservative Party and others, have recently come under fire from research by the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP). Proponents of the model have argued that allowing parents and civil society actors to set up their own schools will improve educational standards by injecting competition into a sclerotic system. It would also increase diversity in the educational sector and empower parents.

Yet the CEP research has been quoted as evidence that the policy “won’t make any difference” in the UK, or that it “will not work“. According to the CEP authors, the comparison is flawed because Sweden started from a position of zero choice, while in the UK, “there is already much school choice and a diversity of provision”. They also argue that the proposal is expensive because new schools require large capital outlays. In short, going the Swedish way would cost a lot of money and bring little if any improvement. The authors propose reforms within the present top-down system instead, such as improving teachers’ qualifications.

Sweden is a pretty country that everybody likes. To people who have grown up with Astrid Lindgren books, “learning from Sweden” sounds nicer than “learning from Milton Friedman”. Nevertheless, the specific Swedish model is merely a third-best or fourth-best proxy for free school choice and a market for educational services. In this sense, the authors’ criticism misses the point.

The good thing about the Swedish model is that the money follows the pupil, which makes it similar to a voucher system. But as the CEP-authors themselves point out, while the Swedish state is willing to fund new independent schools, it is not willing to let failing public schools go bust. This is reminiscent of the debate about hospital competition in Bismarckian healthcare systems: opponents argue that it will not have much effect because municipalities will never let their hospitals fail, regardless of how poorly they perform.

They are probably right. But this is not an argument for not even starting with a choice agenda. It is an argument for making a real job of it. When adopting a choice model, public funding should come exclusively from vouchers or their equivalent, through the hands of parents. Selective subsidies to a politically favoured institution should be made illegal.

It is easy to let state schools go bust. Like any other organisation, they can go into administration and carry on the teaching whilst the assets are transferred to another provider of education. The assets still have a value even if the current manager of them cannot make a profit. Allowing schools to go bust means you have to have less excess capacity. Sweden also has a national curriculum – this should be abolished. And, apparently, we have some choice already (according to CEP). But that choice provides no incentives for improvement – it is simply a way of allocating a fixed set of places to the advantage of the middle class! A bi-product of choice in the UK will also be less inequality.

What worries me about these proposals is the possibility that in some areas they could produce unfair competition for independent schools. Where this happens the degree of state control over education may actually increase. To limit this risk, government spending on schools could be pared down year by year after the reforms were introduced.

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