Evaluating the Market Reforms of Sweden’s Compulsory School System in the 1990s

The aims of the Swedish education reforms in the 1990s were to increase choice and competition in the school market, bring greater efficiency to education funding and improve the overall quality of its provision (Björklund et al., 2005). The question of whether these aims have been realised has created debate since the turn of the millennium, reflected in contradictory studies and a lack of clear consensus. The severe decline in Swedish students’ scores in the most recent international surveys by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) have reignited the issue.


Sweden is internationally renowned as a beacon of social democracy. It boasts comparatively high levels of social equality and standards of living. This has been achieved through its progressive taxation, social services and education systems (Björklund et al., 2005). In 1842 Sweden led the world by establishing compulsory schooling as a key feature of its welfare system to equalise opportunities and lessen the impact of family background on educational attainment (Björklund et al., 2003; Björklund et al., 2005; Bunar, 2008; Fredriksson, 2009; West, 2014). Its public expenditure on education as a share of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been significantly higher than most other countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Considering the strength of its welfare system, it seems unexpected that Sweden would implement such radical market-focused education reforms in the 1990s, but this move is aligned with the ideological shift towards education’s role to further economic aims (Björklund et al., 2005).


Macroeconomic crises of the 1970s and growing dissatisfaction with centrally managed economies saw many OECD countries adopt neoliberal reforms that embraced competition through decentralisation (Björklund et al., 2005).  David Harvey’s (2005) definition of neoliberalism identifies deregulation, privatisation and the withdrawal of the State in providing social services as key mechanisms employed “…to bring all human action into the domain of the market” (p. 3). The increasing globalisation of the economy and growing political forces in favour of such reforms influenced even Sweden to adopt similar measures (Bunar, 2008; Wiborg, 2015). Changes included tax reform, membership of the European Union and deregulation of markets (Björklund et al., 2005). The radical restructuring of Sweden’s education system from the late 1980s is particularly interesting given the history of the Nordic quest for equality through centrally-managed structures (Björklund et al., 2005; West, 2014).


The reforms were motivated by arguments with both egalitarian and economic foundations (Björklund et al., 2005). Sweden was also affected by the global macro-economic downturn and suffered a decline in its national economy and employment levels (Klitgaard, 2007). Public frustration with the bureaucracy of the welfare system developed (Bunar, 2008; Klitgaard, 2007). The role of education came to be viewed not only as a public good but also as a mechanism to promote greater economic efficiency and development (Alexandersson, 2011; Bunar, 2008). Economic concerns were compounded by growing public pressure over slipping academic outcomes and the lack of school choices available in the public system (West, 2014). A combination of these factors facilitated the election of Sweden’s first neo-liberal government in 1991. The main goals of the centre-right government’s market-oriented education reforms were greater cost-effectiveness through decentralisation of administration, competition and choice with the establishment of more independent schools (friskolor), and a higher quality of education (Björklund et al., 2005; Bunar, 2008; West, 2014; Wiborg, 2015).


To this end, Sweden’s decentralisation process was extensive and rapid. It completely restructured the governance of what had been a highly centralised compulsory education system in the late 1980s, making it one of the most decentralised in the OECD by the mid-1990s (Björklund et al., 2003; Wiborg, 2015). The Social Democrats regained power in 1994 but were constrained as a minority government and caught between new ideology and old traditions. They did not dismantle these reforms but presented the changes as modernisation of the welfare state (Björklund et al., 2005; Klitgaard, 2007).


One of the most significant changes brought by these reforms was the money diverted from compulsory schooling to tertiary education (Björklund et al., 2005). This has affected the funds available to employ teachers and therefore the ratio of students to teachers in classes.


The initial move towards the reforms was in 1989 when the Social Democrats gave municipalities the responsibility for employing teachers. Following the 1991 election, the authority for school budgets was also handed over to the municipalities in the form of block grants. Remaining restrictions were relaxed further in 1993 and it was the prerogative of the municipality to spend these resources as it deemed appropriate, with no minimum requirement of resources earmarked for education (Björklund et al., 2005, p. 46; Klitgaard, 2007). When schools became responsible for teacher salary negotiations in 1994, teacher unions challenged it because it threatened teachers’ working conditions and allowed for school managers to bring in individual pay schemes for teachers (Björklund et al., 2005). While total government expenditure on schools was fairly constant throughout the decade and higher than many OECD countries, funds dedicated to teacher salaries was significantly lower than the OECD average. Low salary and performance-drive pay structures has led to teaching being seen as a less attractive occupation (Björklund et al., 2005). This belittling of teaching as a profession has also led to an increase of noncertified teachers. By the school year 2009/10, twenty percent of teaching staff in public schools had no pedagogical training, to nearly half in independent schools (Alexandersson, 2011, p. 201-202). This is concerning because extensive research concludes that the quality of teachers is one of the most important factors in student achievement (Björklund et al., 2005).


The majority of the research on class size, especially that from Sweden, argues that smaller student to teacher ratios have a positive effect on educational achievement (Kreuger, 2003, cited in Björklund et al., 2005). These ratios increased substantially with the reforms. In 1991/92 the average Swedish class size was 21.8 students, compared to 25.8 students by the end of the decade (Björklund et al., 2005 p. 45). Not only does this worsen teachers’ working conditions, it is possible such changes can have an effect on student achievement, particularly that of disadvantaged students (Björklund et al., 2005).


In response to calls for more choice and competition within the school system, the Swedish reforms allowed for greater outsourcing of schools to private providers of independent schools, or friskolor. It was hoped that allowing more choice would inject competition into the school system, ideally resulting in poorly performing schools improving their efficiency and productivity in response to the pressure (Björklund et al., 2005; Friedman, 1997).


In 1992 there were approximately 90 independent primary and lower secondary schools, which increased to 539 in 2002/03 (Björklund et al., 2005, p. 83). The friskolor use a voucher system, are funded by municipalities according to student numbers as in the public system, and are now unable to charge extra fees (WIborg, 2015; Sandström & Bergström, 2005). They are forbidden to be selective over admissions, but critics contest that enforcement of this rule is difficult (Björklund et al., 2005), and until 2010 they did not have to comply with the same regulatory framework as their public equivalents (West, 2014). The substantial majority of these schools are run by for-profit companies (Ministry of Education, 2010) and are most common in large cities (Björklund et al., 2005; Bunar, 2008).


Although friskolor hoped to reduce costs, the evaluation of Björklund et al. (2005) deduces that there is “no support for the conclusion that private school choice either increases or decreases cost” and suggests that if there are benefits of school competition it must be realised in higher student achievement (p. 88).


The effects of school choice on achievement is a contentious question due to the variety of other influential factors within and outside of the education system. Björklund et al. (2005) noted a moderately higher performance of independent schools over public, but acknowledged this could be a consequence of self-selection rather than a causal relationship. Sandström & Bergström (2005) suggest that greater competition in the Swedish education market led to overall better student results and therefore quality of education, but it must be noted that both of these studies were undertaken before two most recent PISA surveys. Sweden is being urged to reform its education system again by the OECD after its students’ PISA scores fell more steeply than any other country over the last decade, especially between 2009-2012, to well below average (OECD, May 2015).


The privatisation of Sweden’s public school system seems to have encouraged segregation along gender, ethnic, social and religious boundaries. Diversity of choice in the school system has seen a concentration of friskolor in more advantaged areas, and the OECD notes that the reforms seem to have favoured students from well-off and educated families over others (OECD, March 2015). The increased segregation of neighbourhoods could have limited choices for some groups in Sweden (West, 2008). Fewer opportunities for social mixing across the lines is a problem for Sweden’s educational outcomes, as there is significant research that demonstrates the effect of peers on student achievement (Björklund et al., 2005). The OECD warns that these growing inequalities within the school system could also negatively affect the intergenerational mobility that Swedish society is known for (OECD, March 2015).


To conclude, the aims of the Swedish education reforms to improve financial efficiency and student achievement levels have not been realised. Sweden’s incumbent Education Minister Gustav Fridolin has lamented the drop in achievement levels, educational equality and the international reputation Sweden once held, referring to the reforms as “a political failure” (The Guardian, 2015). Sweden’s marketisation of education has been looked to as an example by reformists in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, but these countries risk creating even greater inequalities in their contexts as they do not have the strong welfare system or narrow income distribution that Sweden still maintains.




Alexandersson, M. (2011). Equivalence and choice in combination: the Swedish dilemma. Oxford Review of Education, 37(2), 195-214.


Björklund, A., Clark, M. A., Edin, P., Fredriksson, P., and Krueger, A. (2005). The market comes to education in Sweden: An evaluation of Sweden’s surprising school reforms. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.


Björklund, A., Lindahl, M., Sund, K. (2003). Family background and school performance during a turbulent era of school reforms. Prepared for Swedish Economic Policy Review.


Bunar, N. (2008). The free schools “riddle”: Between traditional social democratic, neoliberal and multicultural tenets. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 52(4), 423-438.


Fredriksson, A. (2009). On the consequences of the marketisation of public education in Sweden: For-profit charter schools and the emergence of the ‘market-oriented teacher’. European Educational Research Journal, 8(2), 299-310.


Friedman, M. (1997). Public schools: Make them private. Education Economics, 5(3), 341-344.


Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Klitgaard, M. B. (2007). Do welfare state regimes determine public sector reforms? Choice reforms in American, Swedish and German schools. Scandinavian Political Studies, 30(4), 444-468.


Ministry of Education and Research. (2010). OECD review on evaluation and assessment frameworks for improving school outcomes: Country background report for Sweden. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/edu/school/45957739.pdf


OECD. (2015, January). OECD Income inequality data update: Sweden. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/els/soc/OECD-Income-Inequality-Sweden.pdf


OECD. (2015, March). Sweden Policy Brief. Retrieved from  https://www.oecd.org/sweden/sweden-achieving-greater-equality-of-opportunities-and-outcomes.pdf


OECD. (2015, 4 May). Sweden should urgently reform its school system to improve quality and equity. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/sweden/sweden-should-urgently-reform-its-school-system-to-improve-quality-and-equity.htm


Sandström, M., and Bergström, F. (2005). School vouchers in practice: Competition will not hurt you. Journal of Public Economics, 89, 351-380.


Weale, S. (2015, 10 June ). It’s a political failure: How Sweden’s celebrated schools system fell into crisis. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/10/sweden-schools-crisis-political-failure-education 15.11.16.


West, A. (2014). Academies in England and independent schools (fristående skolor) in Sweden: Policy, access and segregation. Research Papers in Education, 29(3), 330-350.


Wiborg, S. (2015). Privatising education: Free school policy in Sweden and England. Comparative Education Review, 59(3), 473-497.



Planning my thesis – a comparative investigation of education and social equity in New Zealand and Finland

davI haven’t been updating this page over the Spring semester as I have wanted to focus on my studies and life in Oulu. I will write more frequently on here as I adventure into my thesis, the plan of which is mapped out in this very long post with reference to the complex field of comparative and international education research. Please feel free to comment, question, and critique. These are early days and I have much to learn! I hope that you can learn something from this too :)

x Min


If we study foreign systems of education thoroughly and sympathetically – and sympathy and thoroughness are both necessary for the task – I believe that the result on our minds will be to make us prize, as we have never prized before, the good things which we have at home, and also to make us realise how many things there are in our [own education systems] which need prompt and searching change.”

(Sadler, 1990, cited in Bray, 2014a, p. 40).

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#NoDAPL – understanding the kaupapa from Aotearoa


maori-solid-standing-rock Source: Māori in solidarity of Standing Rock and Indian Country (Facebook Group) 

If built, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) will traverse almost 1900 kilometres of whenua to transport crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois in the US. Initially, the project planners had the pipeline coursing through Bismarck, North Dakota – home to a majority white population. However, following their objections to the risk of poisoning their drinking water the DAPL Company rerouted the pipeline into treaty lands. The pipeline now proposes to criss-cross the source of drinking water and desecrate wāhi tapu of the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes at multiple points.

The construction of the pipeline invoked the requirement under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act to consult with Indigenous Peoples on the pipeline’s potential impact. In February 2015, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) – the body responsible for waterways,  wrote…

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Reading: Finnish culture & education systems 1: The role of significant others in intercultural teacher education

Before I moved to Finland I was worried about what it would be like living in a place with far less ethnic and cultural diversity than New Zealand. Auckland, my home city, is one of the most diverse in the world, with 39% of our population born overseas and 220 different ethnic groups recorded as living there. Being one of only a handful of Pākehā on the packed Dominion Road bus is what feels normal and “home” for me. Finland doesn’t have the same history of immigration, and the majority (93.4% as at 2014) of inhabitants are ethnic Finns. The capital city Helsinki is much more multicultural than Oulu, where I live in the north. I’m happy to say that I need not have worried so much, because the friendship family we are forming in our class of 20 has 19 different nationalities represented. Every class discussion, shared meal and party develops our intercultural awareness and expands our perspectives. It is a privilege and joy to be a part of such a group and to learn so much from each of its members.

One of the readings we have been assigned for our Orientation to the Finnish Culture and Education Systems is Katri Jokikokko’s article on the role of significant others in the intercultural learning of teachers. Katri is a graduate of the Intercultural Teacher Education programme at the University of Oulu, which is a five year master’s degree in primary teaching. (All teachers need to have a master’s research degree in Finland). The ITE programme’s aim is to respond to the challenges posed by multiculturalism in the Finnish education system and provide competences for international tasks in the field of education. I would love to study the ITE course but I already have a teaching qualification, and I think if I’m going to dedicate another five years to study after my MA I should probably just do my PhD!  

The article is interesting because it is compiled from data taken from ten biographical interviews in which Finnish teachers talked about their lives through the lens of intercultural learning. Their reflections often involved other significant people who played an important role in the development of their intercultural awareness and shifting attitudes towards diversity. While I had a range of questions, some of them critical, about the research, it was helpful for me to reflect on my own life’s journey and the role that significant others have played in it.

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Notes: Ethics & Education 4: Fishbowl discussion – Why are ethics important in the teaching profession?

Yesterday we moved all the furniture around to set up for a fishbowl discussion based on the introductory seminars (see earlier Ethics & Education posts for background). We had five chairs like a panel at the front, with the rest of us acting as the audience. The only people who could speak were those on the panel, and if others wanted to contribute to the discussion they have to sit at the front also. The chairs were hot-seats with four people beginning the panel, leaving one chair empty and waiting for another participant from the audience. By the end of the 90 minute session just about everyone in the class had spent some time on the panel, posing questions, answering others, describing experiences and debating points of difference.

The notes I took are a mess, but as you can imagine it was impossible to write down everything that was being discussed, especially when I was in the panel myself! Some key points covered were: whether we need codes of ethics, role of legislation, religion and spirituality as ethical guides, society’s expectations, universality of values, dealing with diversity, conflict between personal and professional ethics, transmission of ethics and the need for transparency.

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Notes: Ethics & Education 3: Why is being an educator an “ethical profession”?

Ed logo 1.jpgIn these seminars we looked at metaphors in common images about the role of education and those who provide it, such as the central place in humanity, torch to guide and enlighten, global connection, literacy, peace and hope, working together etc. ed-logo-2

We also discussed what constitutes a “profession” and compared the teaching profession to others, and the value placed on them.

We explored some fascinating questions about education being value-laden, our extra responsibilities as we’re dealing with children who are always more vulnerable than adults, managing relationships with other partners  involved (such as parents, school admin, Ministry), how we as teachers are models for our students whether we like it or not, what happens when our personal ethics conflict with professional ones, whether the transmission of values (whose values?) is our responsibility and how best to do this, the hidden curriculum…

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Notes: Ethics & Education 2: The role of moral consciousness in identity and the “self”

Unfortunately I was unwell for the first seminar on this topic, but I was able to catch up on some of the ideas discussed in the Zhou and Biesta reading about Confucianism vs the Reflexive Project of the Self in lifelong learning was fascinating. In class we explored the ideas of good vs bad and the development of the moral consciousness, the relationship between professional/legal/personal ethics, action vs inaction, and global ethics.

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Notes: Ethics & Education 1: Intro – teaching is “moral by nature”

The notes I made for this introduction to the Ethics and Education course are brief because we spent some time looking at the course outline, which I’ve included in these notes (it’s so exciting!). Our discussions explored the idea of teaching as being “moral by its nature” and the range of ethical dilemmas and decisions we face daily in our roles. We also looked briefly at the Finnish education union’s ethical principles, which you can read yourself here.

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Notes: Qualitative Research 4: What is the role of theory in research?

These class notes are from today’s seminar about the role of theory in our research. We reflected on what we learned last week about paradigms, discussed the definition of “theory”, where theories are present (spoiler: everywhere), how theories are used in research, building our own theoretical frameworks, and the difference between a theoretical framework and a literature review.

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Notes: Qualitative Research 3: What do I want to do? From aim to realisation

These class notes build on the reading about paradigms in social science research and briefly detail some of the paradigms commonly used in social science and education research. Paradigms covered here include positivism and post-positivism, constructivism and interpretivist approaches, critical theories for emancipation, deconstruction and re-creation by using theory as method.

We explored which approaches fit best with our own world-views and where there might be overlap with complementary paradigms, why we need to be careful using more than one paradigm in our research despite feeling they fit together, ontological and epistemological assumptions about truth/knowledge that are the basis of these paradigms, and questioning whether paradigms are useful or unhelpful concepts at all!

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Notes: Qualitative Research 2: Paradigms of social research – reading

These brief reading notes summarise the key points made in the below reading as preparation for a seminar about various paradigms used in education and social science research.

Corbetta, P. (2003). Paradigms of social research. In Social research: Theory, methods and techniques (pp. 8-29). : SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781849209922.n1

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