In 1992, Sweden introduced a major education reform whereby the government funds all schools – state and private, non-profit and for-profit – on the same basis. You can call it an education voucher system, although that adds nothing to understanding it.
(Actually, the initial ‘voucher’ to non-government schools was somewhat less than to schools in the public sector. Later, however, payments were equalised: as a Swedish minister said at a conference I attended in Stockholm a couple of years ago, “We believe in equality in Sweden!”)
Odd Eiken, the head of the Swedish education ministry at the time of the reforms, visited New Zealand as a guest of the Business Roundtable in the mid-1990s.
The reform has been an enormous success. It is now supported by all political parties in Sweden except the communists. Teachers and the teacher unions are also supportive.
The video below from Cato of Peje Emilsson, founder of the for-profit chain Kunskapsskolan, gives an excellent update on Swedish education.
Among the points he makes about the overall system are:
- It is very easy to set up a new school
- Schools cannot pick and choose students
- They cannot charge additional fees but independent schools operate at lower cost than government schools
- Enrolments in independent schools have grown from 1% in 1991 to 11% today. At the upper secondary level 23% of students are in the independent sector and in parts of Stockholm the figure is as high as 50%
- About 60% of the independent schools are for-profit companies
- The independent schools are achieving better education results. The results of the for-profit schools are better again
- Competition has improved the performance of public schools
- Kunskapsskolan combines technology and teacher involvement in new ways, putting students at the centre of learning
- All the curriculum is on the computer, so that teachers have 27-30 hours a week with students compared with 20 hours (or sometimes only 10) in public schools
- The company now has 10,000 students enrolled and employs about 800 teachers. It is achieving about the best results in Sweden.
The Swedish system is not unique – the Netherlands, Denmark and Ireland have similar policies, and there are steadily expanding voucher programmes in the United States. Australia has a more even playing field than New Zealand as far as independent schools are concerned. Reports by an Inter-Party Working Group in 2009 recommended similar moves in New Zealand.
The experience of for-profit schools in Sweden is particularly interesting. I have long thought that for-profit education may be the way of the future in the twenty-first century. A thriving for-profit sector may hold out the best hope for revitalising teaching as a profession and allowing good teachers the opportunity to earn the rewards they deserve.