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Swedish study: free schools improve everyone’s results

9 November 2012

What will free schools mean for the quality of education — in the new schools, and in the old ones they compete with? In Sweden, they don’t have to guess. They have almost 400 free schools, and data from millions of pupils. The latest study has just been published, and has strong results that I thought might interest CoffeeHousers (you can read the whole paper here). It makes the case for Michael Gove to put the bellows under the free school movement by following Sweden and let them be run like expanding companies (that is to say, make a profit). It finds that:

1. Growth of free schools has led to better high school grades & university participation, even accounting for other factors such as grade inflation.

2. Crucially, state school pupils seem to benefit about as much as independent school ones. When ‘bog standard comprehensive’ face new tougher competition, they shape up. They know they’ll lose pupils if they don’t. As the researchers put it: ‘these positive effects are primarily due to spill-over or competition effects and not that independent-school students gain significantly more than public school students.’

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3. Free schools have produced better results on the same budget. Their success cannot be put down to cash. Or, as they say, ‘We are also able to show that a higher share of independent-school students in the municipality has not generated increased school expenditures.’

4. That the ‘free school effect’ is at its clearest now because we now have a decade’s worth of development and expansion.

The survey was large: every Swedish pupil who finished school between 1988 and 2009. The researchers were able to look at grades and test score outcomes, and — crucially — follow the students as they grow older. This allowed them to ‘look at the effects on long-run outcomes such as high-school grades, university attendance and years of schooling.’

Here’s their conclusion:

‘An increase in the share of independent-school students improves average educational performance both at the end of compulsory school and in the long run in terms of high school grades, university attendance and years of schooling… These effects are very robust with respect to a number of potential issues, such as grade inflation and pre-reform trends. Interestingly, it appears that these positive effects are primarily due to spill-over or competition effects and not that independent-school students gain significantly more than public school students. Notably, because it has taken time for the independent schools to become more than a marginal phenomenon in Sweden, we have only been able to detect statistically significant positive effects for later years (about a decade after the reform). We are also able to show that a higher share of independent-school students in the municipality has not generated increased school expenditures. Hence, our positive educational performance effects are interpretable as positive effects on school productivity.’

PS Nick Pearce from the IPPR tweets that this study shows non-profit schools doing just as well as profit-seeking ones. So why do I call for profit-making schools? The answer is simple: profit-seeking schools expand far more quickly. There’s nothing wrong with running schools for charity but – as the UK shows – this means concentrations of excellence and long waiting lists. When demand exceeds supply for profit-seeking schools, they just open another one. They get help fastest, to the communities that most need it.

The point of this study is that competition between council-run schools and independent schools benefits all pupils. If England allowed its Academies to be like companies – ie, retain savings and borrow money to fund expansion –  the same could happen here. What are we waiting for?

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Show comments
  • TalkinBoutARevolution

    Did the report compare the Swedish context with the UK context? I’m sure that there are other factors that need to be controlled for before something that works in Sweden is adopted in the UK.

  • John_Page

    In the UK, schools which can’t accept all the pupils who want to go there can’t expand, so the bad local school(s) can just continue in their complacent teacher union ways. They can only be shaken up by introducing effective competition.

  • roger

    If profit is made will the company be able to give it to shareholders or will it have to be retained for growth? As the money comes from taxes we don’t want it siphoned out into private equity pockets, PFI was a lasting stain that should be avoided in education.
    I would like to see a UK study on how English private HMC schools employ and retain quality teachers, apparently it’s not by paying as much as in state schools.
    All school should be ‘free’, meaning free of external interference, except for a basic inspection by an OFSTED shrunk to a core like the old HMI system.

    • 2trueblue

      Liebore built hundreds of schools whilst they were in power. Some of these schools have already closed and we will be paying for them until 2035.
      I disagree with PFI projects for infrastructure as the dynamics of decision making is not as sound as when we have to find the money. Those making the decisions have so far not been not up to the mark and have saddled us with ridiculously high maintenance and running costs. Liebore left us with massive numbers of hospitals and schools that we struggle to pay for now. There appeared to be no break clauses to tie interest levels, maintenance costs within the norm. It is just another thing Liebore did not take responsibility for.

  • Jimmy R

    Shouldn’t the headline read that good schools improve everyone’s results. Whether schools are state funded or privately funded it is the quality and content of the teaching which makes the difference between a good and a poor school.

  • Daniel Maris

    They probably do – in Sweden.

    • telemachus

      If Gove is in favour it has to be a bad idea

      • Daniel Maris

        What incredible powers of reasoning are projected by your brain Tele.

        • telemachus

          Teachers hate Gove
          People hate Gove-he looks like a fish
          You have to have some degree of acceptability if your ideas can hold sway

          • Marcus

            Teachers hate Gove ? There can be no greater accolade and clear sign that he is starting a movement that will improve education for our children.
            Teachers have a best been passive over the demise of British educational standards.

  • Jimbly

    It reads from the paper as if the issue is competition rather than free schools (profit-making or private) – I’m no expert on pre-1992 Swedish education, but the paper says schools were essentially local monopolies. That isn’t the case in the UK.

    I’ve no strong view on free schools but I don’t see the argument here for them over opening more comprehensives, academies, etc etc. As they say: “it appears that the positive effects are primarily due to external effects (e.g., spill-over or competition effects) and not that independent school students gain significantly more than public school students”

  • MichtyMe

    What explains neighbouring Finland’s success, it has Europe’s best results. A very different system, uniform, 100% state, egalitarian and comprehensive up to 16.

    • Daniel Maris

      A rather pertinent point MichtyMe. It appears Finland has about 25% smaller class sizes than the UK. That’s significant to my way of thinking.


    • Marcus

      Daniel and MichtyMe,
      No, there is nothing pertinent about this point. Quite the reverse.
      So, Finland have succeed where we catastrophically failed.
      So what?
      We tried uniform, egalitarian comprehensive education for 60 years; our standards fell year on year against the rest of Europe.
      Plenty of services in Scandinavia are provided well by the state that are provided hopelessly in this country.

      The only yard stick for measuring educational policy, be it funding or new teaching methods, is outcomes.
      To advance any other policy on the basis of ideological principle is a vile arrogant betrayal of children.
      So, I presume your not trying to advocate the previously tried in the U.K. and failed egalitarian comprehensive method that deprived generations of U.K. children of opportunity?
      In which case what’s your point?

  • L’Arse

    Have the Swedes ever had ‘bog-standard comprehensives’ in their education system?
    If not, your argument is somewhat moot.

    • hans_odeberg

      Not sure I know what bog-standard is, but I will happily share what little I know of Swedish schools – as I’m Swedish, I’ve spent most of my school years there, with some short stop-overs in Britain.

      Swedish schools used to be run by the state. All schools, apart from a couple of private schools for the Royal Family and other ridiculously rich people.

      Then, a couple of decades back, local councils took over the schools. And they quickly realized that money could be made on the schools. The state still provides a fixed sum of money for each pupil. Just raise the rent on the school buildings, and you have a nice pile of money to build a new swimming pool or sports arena. We parents could not do much to protest – there were no other schools to run away to.

      At the age of 12, I spent some time in a London comprehensive school (Chreighton). Coming from a small Swedish town to a large London school I was petrified; I imagined all sorts of terrible things. To my surprise that school was calmer, quiter and provided better teaching than the Swedish school I returned back to afterwards.

      But anyway – why have private schools provided an improvement? To me, it is due to having given us parents the ability to say **** off, and move to another school if we are dissatisfied. When I was young there were no alternatives. The local council placed you in a school. If you felt uncomfortable there, wanted to move: tough. Your only option was to move to another town.

      Today, schools are much more responsive to my needs. Whether they are private or not. I have both my children in the local comprehensive. When one child was being bullied in his class, and the teachers did not react to my satisfaction, I simply moved my child to the other local comprehensive. That would once have been very difficult, but now there was no problem, since if they had refused I would just have walked over to the local private school.

      But can’t you already do this in Britain? I don’t know, you tell me. Is education free for all in the British private schools? They are here. And that is a good point – good education should not be only for those who can afford it.

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