School vouchers in Sweden

Published in Policy Review no 5 by Centre for Civil Society, New Delhi in Dec 2012

Being a nation with a successful market economy in socialist-leaning welfare state, Sweden has one of the best functioning school voucher systems in the world. The combination of successful for-profit school corporations and other independent schools in a well-functioning government has proven that school vouchers can thrive even when the political majority votes for the left.

First some facts. In Sweden, compulsory primary school starts at age 7 with grade levels 1-9 and ends at age 16. 77 % of all students finish primary school with marks in all subjects. The majority of primary schools are municipally run and the most common situation is that pupils attend a municipal school close to their home. Each municipal school can develop its own profile, have different orientations, such as Montessori pedagogy, English classes or cultural and sports profiles. Independent primary schools are open to all and the education should correspond to that provided in municipal primary schools. The organisers/ owners of independent schools may be a for-profit company, a non-profit foundation or an association of parents or teachers.

Secondary school starts at age 16 and lasts 3 years with profiles in science, social sciences, arts, vocational, computing, and many other options. All secondary schools must fit their profiles into 17 national profiles. 99 % of all students continue to secondary schools and 70 % finish their studies within the stipulated three years. Independent schools are open to everyone but may set different admission rules if the places are oversubscribed.

The average number of pupils per school is 380. There are significantly more
pupils per school in municipal schools (574) than in independent schools (188). Almost half of the pupils in secondary independent schools attended a school located in another municipality, compared with a quarter of pupils that attended municipal schools.

Teacher-student-ratio is 8, 3 per 100 students in primary schools and 8, 1 teachers in secondary schools, which is higher than the OECD average and school expenditures are thus higher than average. Internationally, Swedish students read well but do on average in EU/OECD tests in mathematics and science from an earlier higher position in 1980s. End-of-term reports were given only at grade 8 and 9 earlier but have since 2011 changed to be given from grade 6. Families and pupils will now be informed through meetings with teachers until grade 5, age 12, a change from being informed at grade 7, age 14, which has been the assessment policy since 1985. Giving out written end-of-term reports and marks to students under age 15 was forbidden until 2011, but have now been relaxed.

Swedish education policy before World War II had viewed educational reforms as a means to open the gates to higher learning for all. To raise the best and brightest from the lower classes by giving them entry to the former closed schools for middle and upper classes was the goal for the ruling socialist labour party (which ruled 1932-1976, the world’s longest democratically elected government). But after 1945, schools themselves needed to change according to the new more radical socialist education planners. The learning of the higher classes was to be brought down to conform to the new but less knowledgeable students from the working class the socialists thought, thereby downgrading their own class. Criticism of schools was first directed towards what was viewed as bourgeois and traditional values and knowledge. The new modern society needed new knowledge that was relevant to a welfare society, not to take over the old education system, the socialists argued. The goal for primary education as stated in the 1962 curriculum of the new school system of equal and open municipal primary schools was to support the varied development of the pupils and thus bring them knowledge and train their skills. Note here that the order of the notions; development comes first, knowledge and skills second and as an effect from pupils’ development. Development in social harmony was the openly stated goal for the post-war school system to which all Swedish parties adhered to .

In 1980s, Sweden had one of the most centralized education systems in the world, with less than 1 % students in independent schools (private boarding schools for the elite). But due to liberal ideas from New Public Management and demands from parents, especially in rural areas, ideas of deregulation started to influence local and central school authorities. Fear of shutting down municipal schools in remote areas led some parents to start cooperatives and hire teachers in order to secure schools nearby, albeit very small units. At the top level, education planners in government realised that they could not keep up with the pace of changes in curriculum, information technology, pedagogical profiles and international educational trends. A need for reforms was felt, but the government did not want to reform the whole system, rather allow others to take on initiatives that may blossom and become models. By 1989, the responsibility for staff regulations and salaries were handed over to municipalities from the state, which had until then the last word in all negotiations with teacher trade unions. All schools became much freer to adjust their organisations and make flexible solutions to cater to the rising demands from parents and the public. But it was not enough.

A shift in government from centre-left to centre-right in 1991 pawed the way for a school. voucher system at primary and secondary school levels, enabling free choice among municipal and independent schools in the community or even in other areas of the country. The local municipal schools are obliged to welcome local students, a function which ensures continuity and access. In case an independent school is shut down, students have the right to enter the local municipal school, which they always had as an option.

The vouchers are not pieces of paper but a sum per student in the account at the local municipality budget. Independent schools send an invoice to the municipal office of total number of students in each grade and profile. Since all residents in Sweden have an identification number consisting of the date born and four numbers, the space for corruption is very low since no student can be start without registration in one school. To receive vouchers, all schools must adhere to national curriculum and be subject to the Schools Inspectorate. Before starting a school, an application process will determine the need for a school in a certain area with a certain profile. In this process, the local municipality may object, stating that there are already enough schools there. But the national Schools Inspectorate has the last decision power and may overrule the local standpoint.
The voucher is worth the average cost for a place at a government school. Restrictions prevent independent schools from charging top-up fees or selecting students, ensuring equality of access. Per Unckel, responsible Minister of Education 1991-1994 of the Moderate Party said that ”Education is so important that you can’t just leave it to one producer, because we know from monopoly systems that they do not fulfill all wishes.”

Thus the old idea from 1955 by Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman using vouchers to release pupils from their neighborhood government schools and increase competition leading to stimulate better results was introduced in socialist-leaning Sweden. Using tax money to subsidize the consumer, the parent and child, rather than the producer, the school, was a whole new idea in 1950s but adopted in Sweden. Rather than giving vouchers to the needy, vouchers are universal and for everyone. All families are entitled, which is the official Swedish welfare policy in health care, social welfare and other government services.
In 1992 when the voucher system started, independent schools did only get 85 % of the total expenses per child from municipal funds. What is more interesting is that the succeeding centre-left majority from 1994 in Swedish parliament did not revoke the voucher system but expanded it. The socialist government increased the voucher value to 100 % which meant that vouchers had become an established feature of Swedish education policy beyond rivaling political ideologies. Today there is wide support of the voucher system but doubts of the for-profit corporations. Support comes from parents and children who are able to leave downtrodden areas with malfunctioning government schools. To tell them that they are bound to chose the closest school will never win support.
But there is a great concern of the children whose parents to not exercise their right to chose better schools, especially in immigrant populated areas with fewer Swedish children than before the voucher reforms. Many white-skinned children leave for better schools in more Swedish speaking areas, thus leaving the brown-skinned children behind and with little contacts among the Swedish speaking majority. Some suburban schools have less than 1 % native Swedish speaking children left. School authorities, academics, journalists and all political parties including strong opinions from the centre-left parties (including the green ecological party) debate and discuss how to combine freedom of choice with need for social, cultural and linguistic integration. The socialists have recently argued for a system to ensure social variation and equality in each school, but have not come up with any practical policies how to divide students. Neither old Indian reservation systems in education do not impress, nor the new Right to Education quota of 25 % Economically Weaker Sections (EWS).
Being ethnically very homogenous and with strong political reforms including high taxation to level out any inequalities, Swedish school policy makers became anxious that the effects of school choice would lead to more segregation and less equality. The former enthusiasm of school choice gave way to market-skeptic and market- ambivalent groups of policy makers and scholars . The National Agency for Education (NAE, Skolverket) is skeptic and ambivalent but has to follow the policy of centre-right government which rules since 2006, in favor of school choice but nevertheless with some caveats. Only the real for-profit education entrepreneurs are still happy with the school choice reforms, while the majority of education policy makers are concerned about inequality or seem to be. Being in favour of school choice has become equivalent to promote inequality and segregation against immigrants, which the left- dominated media is quick to use .

In 2012, 11 % of children are in independent primary schools and 23 % in independent secondary schools. More than 60 % of the independent schools are run for-profit by a small number of national school corporations. Initially this was not the case. Teachers with new educational ideas started new schools by early 1990s to make a mark on educational development, not to make profits. Cooperatives run by parents and teachers were pioneers but did not last as long as the corporations, which got into education by early 2000s. What have emerged as a success for all independent schools regardless of ownership are their better results in achievements and social functioning. In the spring of 2011, the average grade result for government primary schools was 66 %, whereas 77 % in independent schools. Hard to argue for closure of well-functioning schools, in Sweden as well as for threats to close private budget schools in India since the RTE Act in 2010.

But there is always the anti-market policy from the left that can be launched at any initiative run for-profit, especially education since this is cherished as an almost spiritual activity with high goals. This attitude which was as frequent in medieval Christian schools for noblemen in Europe as it was in the ancient Vedic gurukuls for the twice born male Indians is still alive and strong, but now in socialist and union circles, media, research and among government employees.

Recently the Left party, workers trade union LO, leading social democrats and some academics have rallied against both the school voucher system itself, with less public support, and the for-profit motive in education, with far more support, even among centre-right voting citizens. Even in the market-oriented US a recent survey showed that “people doubt the ability of profit-seeking business to benefit society” . Profits for school owners must mean less quality for students, since there is a zero-sum rationality of every enterprise, the American public falsely concluded, as did the Swedish and the British . That every action taken for profit must be anti-social is an “ineradicable prejudice”, eminent economist Joseph Schumpeter sighed in 1954 . Many cannot understand that being profitable does not mean that profits are handed out to shareholders at the expense of student concerns and results. But this would mean than the more money is spent, the better the students fare, which is not the case at all .

Friedman’s hope that competition would lead to better schools, independent and government, has been rewarded in Sweden. A longitudinal study of schools since 1992 and students born 1972-1993 shows that increase in the share of independent schools have robust effects on average performance at the end of compulsory primary school (grade 9) as well as long-run educational outcomes . The results showed also that a higher degree of independent schools has not generated increased expenditures, rather the opposite. Independent schools perform better than government schools, but do not cost more. The relative decline in student achievements since two decades back has most likely been helped by increased competition and better efficiency in independent schools. Without them, Swedish schools would do much worse.

A hope Friedman cherished was that school vouchers would enable the students with low socio-economic backgrounds to enter better schools. Sahlgren (2011) shows this to be the case in Sweden especially for students in schools run for-profit. Non-profit schools have less even results. The idea leftist idea to ban for-profit schools (and other services run by private business on government contracts) would lead to closure of schools, lessened competition and lower efficiency.


This emphasis on social values rather than knowledge was openly defended as only being right and natural. ”In the golden age of Nordic social democracy, social virtues such as equal opportunity, cooperation, adaptation and solidarity were considered to be the main goals of compulsory schooling”, Oftedal Tellhaug et al 2006, p. 253.

Bunar 2010, p.8: ” With the exception of a few studies from liberal think tanks who wholeheartedly support the policy of school choice and acknowledge virtually all of its outcomes as solely positive, the vast majority of research in Sweden, including the ones from the NAE, could be classified as either clearly market-skeptical or strongly market-ambivalent”.
Asp 2011. According to polls made by Gothenburg University in 2011 but with same trends since 1980, journalists have sympathies for the left parties far beyond the average Swedish voters, 70 % versus 40 %. School choice reforms are thus negatively biased in policy debates, but often not in private discussions among parents and students.

Bhattarcharjee et al, 2011, p. 4.
Muir 2012.
Quoted in Stanfield 2012, p.30. This anthology has three contributions from Swedish school entrepreneurs.
Gustafsson and Myrberg, 2003 and Renstig et al, 2009.
Böhlmark and Lindahl. 2012.


Asp, Kent. 2012. Journalistboken. Den svenska journalistkårens partisympatier. Kapitel 13. Göteborg: Göteborgs universitet, JMG.

Bhattacharjee, A. et al.(2011) Is Profit Evil? Associations of Profit with Social Harm: Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Bunar, N (2010) “Choosing for quality or inequality: current perspectives on the
implementation of school choice policy in Sweden”. In Journal of Education Policy, vol 25 (1)

Böhlmark, A and Lindahl, M (2012) Independent Schools and Long-Run Educational Outcomes: Evidence from Sweden’s Large Scale Voucher Reform. Discussion paper no. 6683. Bonn: Institute for the Study of Labour (IZA,

Friedman, M. (1955) “The Role of Government in Education”. In From Economics and the Public Interest, ed. Robert A. Solo. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Gustafsson, J-E and Myrberg. E. (2003) Ekonomiska resursers betydelse för pedagogiska resultat. Stockholm: Skolverket (, National Agency for Education)

Muir, R (2012) Not for profit. The role of the private sector in England’s schools. London: Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR,

Oftedal Telhaug, A. et al (2006). ”The Nordic Model in Education: Education as part of the political system in the last 50 years”. In Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, vol 50 (3).

Parding, K (2011) ”Forskning om den svenska friskolereformens effekter”. In Didaktisk Tidskrift, vol 20 (4).

Renstig, M et al (2009) Den orättvisa skolan. Stockholm: Hjalmarsson & Högberg.

Sahlgren, G (2011) Schooling for Money: Swedish Education Reform and the Role of the Profit Motive. London: Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA,

Skolverket (2011) Facts and figures about pre-school activities, school-age
childcare, schools and adult education in Sweden 2011. Stockholm: Skolverket
(, National Agency for Education)

Stanfield, J. (ed.) (2012) The Profit Motive in Education: Continuing the Revolution. London: Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA,


2 thoughts on “School vouchers in Sweden”

  1. An idealized description of grand proportions!
    Is capitalism in any way conducive to lower prices, more concentration on human values, diversity,
    empowered comsumers??? No, no, no.


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