Education in Sweden: just disastrous policy reforms?

Education in Sweden: just disastrous policy reforms?

As I’ve realised how poor results are in Swedish schools, I’ve lost faith in the Swedish school system  But why do schools struggle?  The springboard for international discussion of Swedish schools is policy, for three excellent reasons.  Firstly, Swedish education policy has affected England significantly, providing both inspiration for free schools and academy sponsors ( The Learning Schools Trust is run by Kunskapsskolan; IES Breckland is run by Sweden’s largest free school chain, Internationella Engelska Skolan).  Secondly, policy choices seem linked to the fall in Swedish results; Skolverket, the National Agency for Education, phrase this circumspectly:

Increasing differentiation of levels of attainment coincides with comprehensive changes in the Swedish school system that have occurred since the beginning of the 1990s (2009, p. 18).”

Thirdly, problematically, changes in policy are easier to discuss and report than changes in pedagogy and practice in schools.

In 1992, Sweden began Kommunalisering, the devolution of education to municipalities (communes).  The school system went from being one of the most centralised in the world to one of the most decentralised.  Central involvement and direction is minimal: almost all important decisions are made locally, in communes or by heads.  Each of Sweden’s 290 municipalities has its own per pupil funding system, mostly dependent on local priorities and taxes.  Salaries are determined by individual heads.  The result has been an atomised system.

Kommunalisering coincided with a serious recession.  The initial deal in 1992 offered more money to teachers in return for more controlled time and individual salaries – which unions thought would allow career progression.  In a time of stretched budgets, municipalities saw teachers as relatively well paid compared to their other employees however, particularly since the value of paid hours outside school (for planning and assessment) was not always understood.  Education funding was not ring-fenced: support staff were removed and, after the initial 1992 deal, salaries stagnated.  The status and attractiveness of teaching has fallen: recent absolute rises in teacher pay have not redressed the relative disadvantage compared to other professions, Skogstad stresses.  As one teacher puts it, teachers went “from well-respected state officials to municipality workers in one decade.”

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The Swedish system is heavily deregulated: Per Kornhall describes it as the “most marketised system in the whole world”.  Schools are managed by objectives, but goals are set very loosely.  Student results are decided by teachers; national tests – which only exist in certain subjects, and are also assessed by teachers – merely ‘contribute’ to student results.  I’ve argued previously that high-stakes accountability makes some very shady practice likely.  Reliance on teacher assessment makes shady practice almost inevitable.  Kornhall describes the corrupting effect of this system: parental choice is used as a lever, not to demand better schools, but to demand better grades.  Although national tests are moderated, Isak Skogstad argues there is no reliable data on how different schools are doing, so there can be no comparison of effective and ineffective practices.

In a free school in Malmö, I was astonished to hear a headteacher open a talk by explaining: “Our objective is to make money”.  Free schools can set up wherever they like and were originally exempt from the school law.  The key thing is to attract and keep pupils: all funding is distributed per pupil.  This affects how money is spent – schools offer incentives like free Ipads to attract pupils; it also affects the relationship between students and teachers: in many ways the onus is on teachers to keep students happy.  This combines with the problems in assessment: part of a school’s offer is ensuring that students receive good grades.

Inequality and segregation in education have increased, in schools and in Swedish society more broadly.  Simply arguing this is a direct result of free schools is lazy, but a connection seems plausible.  Skolverket explain that:

Even if the majority of Swedish studies have found that segregation of schools has increased, there is little agreement about the degree to which school reforms are the root cause. One confounding problem… is that residential segregation has increased during the same period… residential segregation is a crucial factor behind differences in pupils’ attainments and educational choices, and there is a certain amount of support, from studies carried out in the 2000s, to indicate that school-choice reforms have also contributed to an increase in segregation between schools (2009, p. 22).”

An easy answer: poor policies killed Swedish education

In the Malmö free school mentioned earlier I was astonished to meet students skipping lessons.  They weren’t skulking away in empty classrooms, they were sitting near the entrance, just outside the hall in which the principal was telling us about his focus on profits.  Students told me they weren’t challenged by staff over absence – if they failed, the school could always collect the money for them to resit their courses.  So it’s clear: Sweden’s educational problems are a case study of the disastrous effect of market reforms on education.

But a story which begins and ends in school policies is incomplete, for two reasons.  Firstly, Sweden is a case study in the disastrous effects of poorly-designed reforms.  Market reforms may have positive or negative effects; any time you invite people to make a profit and ask them to measure their own success, it will end in tears.  More importantly, discussion of problems in Swedish schools too often ends here.  Policy changes were probably necessary to this collapse in standards, but they are not sufficient to fully explain them.  What are Swedish schools doing differently?  What has happened in the classroom since 1992?  In almost every recent English-language article, 80-90% of the discussion has been of school reforms and politics.  There’s another side to this story.  I’ll begin it in my next post.

The full series:
I I lost faith in the Swedish school system
II Collapsing results in Swedish schools
IV Chaotic behaviour in Swedish classrooms
Constricted curriculum, problematic pedagogy
VI: False ideas, weak training, limited support
VII: Comparisons with England, conclusions, suggestions

I’m particularly grateful to Isak Skogstad for his comments on drafts of this post – all errors and opinions remain mine.

Four very similar treatments of this topic, exemplifying the policy focus:
Guardian: ‘It’s a political failure’: how Sweden’s celebrated schools system fell into crisis
BBC: Sweden loses top marks for education
New Statesman: Why Sweden’s free schools are failing
The Economist: Fixing Sweden’s schools

For a full treatment of the policy angle, here’s Per Kornhall at ResearchEDScand, earlier this year.