January 20, 2006


Choice in schools benefits the poor (David Green, 20/01/2006, Daily Telegraph)

Evidence from Sweden shows that choice benefits the least well off, and helps to raise standards for all pupils in neighbourhoods where schools compete.

Sweden is the only European country operating a universal voucher scheme. The reforms began in 1992 when independent schools were guaranteed the right to receive funding from municipalities. Vouchers are now valued at 100 per cent of the average cost of a place in a local state school. Any type of school that meets the requirements of the National Agency for Education is entitled to this funding, whether religious, for-profit or charitable. Schools are prohibited from charging top-up fees and are not allowed to select pupils by ability. They must also meet specific academic standards and adhere to the national curriculum.

The voucher system has resulted in an increase in independent providers. Before the reforms, independent schools in Sweden accounted for less than one per cent of pupils and few of those received any government funding. According to the Swedish National Agency for Education, there were 565 independent schools in 2004/05, accounting for 11 per cent of the 4,963 schools overall. An independent study found that competition from independent schools has improved results in state schools. Moreover, it has been found that new independent schools are more likely to be established in areas of under-performing state schools serving disadvantaged children.

The strongest evidence is from American charter schools. Charter schools are supported by public funds and may not charge fees. Public authorities pay them a cash amount per pupil, usually lower then the average cost of local state schools. They cannot select their students based on admissions tests, and must obey many public school regulations, including test requirements, although they are often exempt or partially exempt from regulations about teacher certification. To avoid back-door selection, state laws typically require charter schools to select students by lottery when the number of applicants exceeds the number of available places.

One of the most authoritative studies has been carried out by academics from Harvard University and Columbia Business School. They looked at charter schools in Chicago, where school places are allocated by lottery when a school is over-subscribed. The study compared the achievements of pupils selected by lottery with those who were not (and who, consequently, attended local state schools). This method has the advantage of eliminating the ''selection'' effect that statisticians worry about. The results cannot be explained by ''home background'', or middle- class parents so hated by Labour backbenchers, because all the pupils had motivated parents who wanted their children to attend charter schools - some were lucky enough to attend and others were not.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 20, 2006 8:35 AM

Since liberals love Swedish government systems, they'll be all for this, right?

Posted by: John at January 20, 2006 9:13 AM

The students in the charter schools did better than the similarly self-selected who had lost the lotteries and remained behind in the general population schools.

More elephants in the living room. The advantage of the charter school is less in who is taken, and more in who is left behind. The unfortunate who are left behind through no fault of their own are condemned to continue serve time on the same cell blocs as the unmotivated and disruptive.

Public schools have been the engine driving families out of the cities. It is all about getting your children as far away from the undesireables as you can afford. Charters provide a means of escape to families who could not otherwise afford to free their children from the urban school prison system.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 21, 2006 7:20 AM