Friday, February 16, 2007

The Swedish School Voucher System

DK rightly asked, after my earlier post on the politics of school choice, if I could find some details of the Swedish system to back up my claim that school vouchers would not eliminate educational bureaucracy. I found the details in a study done by two researchers working for The Swedish Research Institute of Trade on behalf of Reform. The studies focus is on whether the number of independent schools would increase, it did, but it includes this section discussing the conditions attached to the voucher:

"However, in 1990 the system was altered and municipalities were given wider authority over their own schools. They were also given full financial responsibility for the school system. In 1992 the Swedish system was further advanced and a new school reform based on a system of school vouchers was implemented. As the objective of the new reform was to give independent schools funding on the same terms as municipality schools it radically changed the rules for funding independent and upper-secondary schools. Hence, under the new law, municipalities were obliged to give funding to independent schools on a per capita basis amounting to 85 per cent of what municipality schools received. The 85 per cent rule was seen to be necessary in order to avoid putting the municipal schools at a disadvantage, since the municipalities would still have to account for various administrative and overhead costs related to their overall responsibility for the school system. The system was further advanced in 2001. Funding of independent schools would now be decided in the same way as funding is given to municipal schools. This means that independent schools receive a municipality funding that is based on the undertaking of the school and the specific needs of each pupil. On its core, the new reform entails that anyone in Sweden can set up a school and receives public funding. Moreover, pupils and parents are free to choose whichever school they like.

Still, independent schools in Sweden must be approved by the Swedish National Agency for Education and meet certain criteria in order to receive funding. They have to meet the educational standards set up for the school system and must work in line with the targets set for the compulsory educational system. They must also be open to admit all children regardless of their ability, religion or ethnic origin. Last, they are not allowed to charge fees. Among the approved schools are schools owned by teacher or parent co-operatives, non-profit organisations and privately owned firms. Municipalities are allowed to give an opinion on whether they consider the establishment of an independent school to be harmful to existing schools, and the Swedish National Agency for Education takes their views into account. However, municipalities have no veto, and are bound by law to finance an independent school
once it has been approved. On several occasions, the Agency has approved schools against the will of the municipalities."

The first paragraph is a little uncertain as to whether the voucher is for the full amount that state schools receive or if it is still 85% as in the original legislation. However, this article makes it clear; Sweden now has a voucher for 100% of the amount state schools receive.

The first thing to note is the similarity to the Conservative proposals for education at the last election in terms of preventing the topping up of the voucher by parents from their private income. I doubt this is a coincidence and it does make the major criticism, cited in my earlier post, that this will be a subsidy to the rich invalid. It is, I believe, more limiting than the old Conservative proposals in that our proposal under Howard was for voucher schools to be able to select by ability which is not allowed under the Swedish system; this does remove the "cream skimming" critique of school vouchers although it is a sacrifice in terms of educational freedom.

The second is that, as I predicted, the educational bureaucracy has not been abolished. There is still a DFES-style national organisation to set the overall standards and ensure that schools stick to them. Also, there is still municipal authority bureaucracy in order to determine the level of funding that is required (perhaps to account for greater costs in different regions); this does highlight that we may not want perfect equality of funding as schools with the hard job of teaching in deprived inner cities may need extra funds for specialist support.

After some more investigation the evidence is that this scheme has worked well so far. In particular this study suggests that independent school competition has improved the performance of state schools. Certainly this was the story with the privatisations of the Thatcher years; privatisations shook up the rest of the economy in a very good way. Equally, it is popular:

"As early as 1993, a poll conducted by the National Agency of Education found that "85 per cent of Swedes value their new school choice rights" and "59 per cent of Swedish parents think that teachers work harder when there is school choice" (CGR 1997: 2). This was true even though only two percent of Swedes had exercised those rights. When the Social Democrats returned to power in 1994, the benefits and popularity of school choice were already becoming evident. They were felt both by the children attending new independent schools and by those who remained in the government-run system, which was starting to respond to parental concerns. As one Swedish professor of education concluded, "one cannot deny that the reform has made municipal schools more efficient" (Miron 1996: 79)."

Another positive to think about in conservative terms, not discussed in the studies, is that once the principle of school independence and vouchers is introduced I would expect that, over time, this will build a sizeable constituency for allowing fees. Once the principle of the independent financing is admitted it will be difficult to deny those middle classes who would like to spend a little to improve their schools; particularly as these schools will be happy to make arrangements for bursaries in return. This reform would build demand for further conservative policies.

In conclusion, I think that the Swedish system's results suggest that the Conservatives had settled on a very appropriate solution with their educational policy at the last election. It was moderate enough to be politically realistic while adventurous enough to make a real difference to educational performance and political reality. I am unsure whether the political advantages of disallowing selection by ability is worth the sacrifice in educational freedom; there is also possibly something in the "cream skimming" argument. However, it is clear that even under the limited terms of the voucher in Sweden they are highly worthwhile both in terms of results and politics. Equally, there is no serious evidence they are a particular political risk, while we did not win in 2005 does anyone seriously think that was because of our education policy?

A great way for Cameron to use the positive public perception of him he spent last year cultivating would be to have another go at selling school choice under the Swedish model.

1 comment:

youdontknowme said...

I had heard about the Swedish school system before but I knew very little about it. I think it sounds like a good idea.