Sweden’s free school model is often rolled out as an example by both those for and against the idea of companies running schools. One of the first countries in the world to allow schools to be run for profit, now nearly a fifth of students go to friskola, or free schools. Yet 20 years after their introduction, there is little evidence to show that pupils are the ones gaining most from the reforms.
Free schools – called free because they are not government-run – were
introduced in 1992 in Sweden as a part of a major restructuring of the
education system. The country went from a highly centralised system in
which municipalities and schools had very limited influence, to one of
the most decentralised systems in Europe. Behind this major reform was a
centre-right government, which for the first time in post-war Sweden
mustered an effective attack on the Social Democrats and the colossal
welfare state. Reformers argued that increased local control over
decision-making would lead to more effective school economies, greater
variation and choice.
For-Profits Drive Free School Growth
The new government introduced school vouchers in 1992 that parents
could use to send their children to either state-run schools (nine-year,
all-through comprehensive schools) or newly established independent
schools – the free schools. At the time, fewer than 1% of all school-age
children were enrolled in independent schools, but in the years since
then the private education sector, supported by public funding, has
The sector was not reined in by Sweden’s Social Democrats upon their
return to government between 1994 and 2006. Instead, they endorsed and
even strengthened it, raising state subsidies to free schools from 85%
to 100%. They argued that the financial situation of parents should not
determine their children’s educational opportunities.
This cross-party consensus was crucial for the private school sector
to take off. Its growth was not driven by community groups seeking to
set up new schools but rather by for-profit providers who were allowed
into the “school market”.
In 2011, 20% of Swedish school children attended free schools at
upper secondary level and 10% attended free schools at primary or lower
secondary level. More than 65% of all of these schools are
for-profit, which translates into 13% of all Swedish schools. The
not-for-profit free schools, usually offering alternative curricula or
religious education, occupy a niche within the private school sector and
are extremely slow growing.
Research by Swedish academics Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl has found that an increase in
the free school share in a municipality moderately improves short-term
educational outcomes for 15 to 16-year-olds. However, they do not find any impact on medium or long-term educational outcomes.
In other words, the advantage that children schooled in areas with
free schools have by the age of 16 is not translated into greater
achievements later in life. They score no better than children educated
in government-run schools in final exams in upper secondary education at
the age of 18 and 19. They are also no more likely to participate in
higher education than those who were schooled in areas without free
More Social Segregation
On the issue of educational inequality, national studies show
that use of school choice has augmented social and ethnic segregation
in Sweden, particularly in relation to schools in deprived areas.
The 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
put this issue into the limelight, when it showed that Sweden’s results
in reading, maths and science had declined – in part as a result of
increasing social inequality.
A more uneven distribution of children from social groups across schools leads to lower results, because children’s academic achievement depends largely on the characteristics of their peers.
Although there are not enough free schools to have had a strong
impact on the 2012 PISA results, they are nevertheless a contributing
factor. Albeit on a small scale, free schools have increased social segregation, even in the context of the relatively egalitarian education system.
The main beneficiaries of Sweden’s free schools seem to be the
education businesses making profit, not children.
Government funding is attached to the number of pupils at a school,
so free schools are incentivised to prioritise quantity over quality.
In order to cut salary costs – the most expensive item on the school
budget – free schools employ a higher number of unqualified teacher
assistants than in the state schools. Those who are qualified are
generally younger and less experienced. The teachers in free schools are
also responsible for a higher number of students than in the state
Innovation appears to be primarily based on the extensive use of
technology and individual learning skills, reducing face-to-face contact
between teachers and students. In addition, unlike government schools,
free schools are not required to have science labs, libraries and school
nurses, all elements which help in reducing costs.
Quantity Over Quality
In turn, the focus on quantity over quality has resulted in increased
government regulation of education. The main examples of this have been
the re-centralisation of the national curriculum in 2011, which all
schools in Sweden must abide by, alongside more regulation of teachers’
If the aim of education is to reconcile high achievement and social integration (Finland serving as an excellent example), it can be concluded that Sweden’s free schools have had the opposite effect.
The Swedish experience shows that allowing for-profit providers into
the “school market” has not lead to increased standards and improved
schools, but instead permitted another vested interest into education in
pursuit of aims above those of children's education, in this respect: