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Swedish Experience Positive for School Choice

Swedish Experience Positive for School Choice

Recent research from Sweden shows that the competition provided by independent schools improves the performance of the local state run schools, says Joy Quigley, Executive Director of Independent Schools of New Zealand.

In 1992 changes in Sweden’s law allowed for the development of independent schools, including those run for profit, that are funded in the same way as state run schools.

Prior to that only a few government-approved independent schools received state financing. The last decade has allowed sufficient time for the establishment of a significant number of schools and for some useful analysis to be undertaken.

The number of students in independent schools has more than quadrupled over the decade and the number of independent schools has increased more than five fold. Yet no one has been able to show that it has had any negative consequences for the public schools. On the contrary all evidence to date indicates that the public (state) schools have improved as a result of having competition says a report by researchers Fredrik Bergström and F. Michael Sandström.

As in New Zealand there has been much debate around the impact of increasing school choice on the local state school. Opponents of more choice argue that the best students and teachers would transfer to independent schools, with a negative consequence for the quality of state run schools. Another argument is that tax revenue is being used to pay for independent (private) schools for children with rich parents. The Swedish experience reports that in practice there is very little to indicate that children of high-income earners would choose independent schools to a greater extent than low-income earners. On the contrary, the school voucher system had rendered it possible for large groups in society to enjoy the same freedom of choice that was heretofore granted only to a few.

Bergström and Sandström were aware that their research would be very critically evaluated and as a result tested a total of more than 20,000 different variations of their model to ensure they could stand by their conclusions.

The recurring tendency within their modelling is that competition contributes to a positive development of the local state run school.

As in New Zealand the number of students attending independent schools in Sweden still remains small, with approximately 4% of primary school children and 5.6% of upper secondary school pupils educated outside the state system. This compares with about 3.7% in New Zealand overall. But the rapid increase since the change in the law reflects parental desire to choose a school that best meets the educational needs of their child. Previously school fees prohibited them from being able to make that choice.

In the last decade the number of independent schools in Sweden has risen from 122 to 637, or about 10% of the total number of all schools. Another 316 applications to start new schools were received for the 2003/4 scholastic year. Recent experience suggests about 100 of these will result in a new school in the next twelve months.

Many of the new schools in Sweden are specialist or pedagogy based (eg Montessori or Steiner) and there are fewer new religious based schools, whereas many of the new independent Christian schools in New Zealand are less than ten years old. Montessori and Steiner schools have been common in New Zealand for several decades and many of them have integrated into the state system in order to remain financially viable. Swedish law allows these schools to retain their independence because they are now funded the same as state schools.

Seven of the eight political parties in Sweden support the current arrangement which funds independent schools in the same way as state run schools. At the last election in New Zealand the majority of political parties indicated their support of choice in education.

Many in this country see Sweden as a model for New Zealand. With sound research showing that the performance of the local state run school improves with the provision of equal funding to independent schools perhaps it is timely for our Government to investigate how the Swedish system operates, said Joy Quigley.

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