In 1992, Sweden introduced school vouchers that parents can use to send their children to either state-run or private managed free schools. Both types of schools are funded by the state, and a key condition for both is that tuition remains free.
The idea was to let primary and secondary education providers compete by allowing students to choose where they wanted to study, rather than allocating them a place at the nearest state-run school.
But though the Swedish model has garnered international attention, critics say that in an effort to attract students, for-profit schools are offering courses that don’t tally with the needs of the job market.
Studies have also shown that, on average, these schools employ fewer staff and have a higher percentage of unqualified teachers.
Parents are worried about their children’s sliding performances since the mid-1990s in international rankings such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
The opposition has addressed the issue, which feeds into concerns that the centre-right coalition in power since 2006 has gone too far in scaling back Sweden’s cherished welfare state.
“The expense you can cut back on the most on is teachers’ salaries,” said Rossana Dinamarca, an MP for the Left Party, an at-times ally of the Social Democratic governments that have ruled Sweden for much of its postwar history.
Turning a profit in these institutions can be difficult: one of Sweden’s largest operators of privately-run schools, JB Education, filed for bankruptcy this month.
With government funding for each school directly linked to the number of pupils it attracts, some for-profit schools sometimes appear to prioritize quantity over quality.
Some have tried to boost enrolment by touting free laptops, and surveys have suggested some independent schools try to attract students by awarding them higher grades – with fears of grade inflation as a result.
But the industry argues that if quality teaching were lacking, students would simply go elsewhere.
Polls show Swedes still largely favour the system but, paradoxically, are less supportive of taxpayers’ money going into the pockets of the profit-making enterprises that run many of the independent schools.
But among those who would like to see it face the chop, or at least give it a makeover, are Sweden’s hairdressers, who say a bevy of secondary schools offering hairdressing diplomas are swamping the profession with graduates.
While would-be hairdressers in the past had to compete to get into a limited number of schools, most towns now have at least one school offering a hairdressing diploma as those institutions realized they could fill more courses, and make more profit.
Many students are unlikely to ever find work in the sector: last year, 2,700 hairdressers graduated from Swedish high schools, compared with an estimated industry demand of around 700.
“Even though we’ve told the schools there isn’t enough demand, they’ve increased the number of students,” said Linda Palmetzhofer, an ombudsman at Handels, Sweden’s third largest blue-collar union.
Another key aim of the voucher system was to make it easier to set up independent schools offering alternative teaching methods, such as the child-centred approach of the Montessori and Waldorf systems.
Gabriel Sahlgren, director of research at the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free-market leaning think tank based in London, says it is this shift towards independent learning skills over chalk-and-talk teaching that is to blame for the slump in Swedish students’ performance in the last two decades, not the rise in the number of independent schools.
Norway also fell in international education rankings after implementing similar newfangled teaching techniques, but without Sweden’s system of free choice, Sahlgren said.
Still, there were areas where the Swedish voucher model needed tweaking, notably the grading system, he said.
“Right now there are greater incentives for schools to inflate grades than to improve the quality of education,” Sahlgren said.
Moreover, the surge in graduates from hairdressing schools was evidence students needed more information about employment prospects, he said.
The tide may already be turning: a decline in the number of hairdresser students indicated information about the tough job market for Swedish hairdressers was filtering through to applicants, Palmetzhofer of the Handels union said.
“The number peaked two or three years ago,” she said.