Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

The Swedish education experiment

Market mechanisms do not improve the quality of educational outcomes in schools while they do increase inequality

When I started visiting Sweden and Finland, I learnt very quickly that the Finns don’t take very kindly to their country being called a Scandinavian country, which is a mistake outsiders often make. Finland is a Nordic country. The Nordic (meaning northern) identity is primarily geographical, including Finland, Iceland and Greenland, in addition to the Scandinavian countries. Scandinavia is a cultural-linguistic region, with substantially Germanic roots. It includes Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

But to outsiders, the Nordic region seems to be culturally integrated. This is not surprising, since the differences amongst the Nordic countries are far less, than between us and them. This impression has been strengthened by the uniform success of the Nordic countries, on almost all social and economic parameters. The success has been driven by their broadly similar nature of national governance and polity, a mix of deep commitment to democracy, social security and public goods, with a market-friendly environment for business i.e. the famed welfare-market state.

However if you are within that region, the differences are distinct. Especially if you are in Finland; the 800-year rule of Sweden over the country is never far from anyone’s mind.

I visited the two countries 30-35 times, spending cumulatively more than a year there. I fell in love with the place. It also gave me an insider’s view of the relative differences. Amongst other things, Swedes were relatively keener on experimenting, trying new things; Finns prefer to stay focused on fundamentals. These are relative but distinct differences.

Some of the key turns in the history of school education in these two countries and their divergences have been partly influenced by these differences. In the early 1990s, Sweden introduced policies in school education, which were based on a set of ideas founded on a greater role for market mechanisms in schools. Independent private schools (including for-profit) were allowed, and these received public funding. It was intended to introduce competition amongst schools, along with more standardized testing. Competition was supposed to offer choice to parents, and drive accountability of schools and teachers, thus driving a virtuous cycle of improvement in the system. This also implied abandonment of the notion of common public schools.

At that time the Swedish school system was anything but dysfunctional. It was the overall (only relative) shift to the right of the polity combined with the relatively higher tendency to experiment, that triggered changes. Finland stayed focused on its course in education, set in 1970s. This included a culture of autonomy for the teacher and school, intense focus and investment on university-based, research driven teacher education and a commitment to equity through a public education system. The changes in Sweden didn’t influence Finland.

As the first decade of the introduction of market mechanisms to schools in Sweden got over, there was general optimism that these changes had made a positive difference in education quality. These initial signs of success were picked up by the global education reform industry and touted as another bit of evidence for the supposed central role of market mechanisms in improving school systems.

As the years passed, this initial enthusiasm started turning to confusion and despair. The performance of the Swedish school system started unravelling. In the past 10 years there has been a steady decline in Sweden’s performance in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), with the latest version showing that the country has gone below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries average. PISA is one of the few international comparisons of school systems done periodically, this one by OECD itself. Despite the significant limitations of such studies, they indicate the trend. Even more agonizingly, Sweden is one of the very few countries where quality has declined and inequality has grown in schools. In the same period Sweden’s Nordic (not Scandinavian) neighbour has continued to be at the top of school performance globally. Finland continues its steady work on the fundamentals, committed to public education. And over the past few years it has built a steady stream of education tourists, who want to learn from the Finnish marvel in schools.

There is nothing unusual in what has played out in Sweden. Comprehensive cross-country research by OECD (not an anti-market body for sure) concludes that market mechanisms do not help in improving quality of educational outcomes in school systems. On the other hand they do increase inequality. This should not be a surprise, since it is well understood that market mechanisms are ineffective providers of socially important and quasi-public goods such as education. However, education cannot be adequately understood by economic analysis. There is something deeper at work. At its core education is a humanistic social endeavour. It creates many (not only economic) benefits for individuals. It is also the foundational process for any society to try and achieve its vision. The idea of a just and equitable India that our Constitution proclaims, needs for its realization, a strong education system. This cannot happen without a well-functioning public school system, which is what we must work for.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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