Why performance and justice no longer go together in Sweden’s schools
It all began in Sweden in the 1990s with the municipalisation of schools without a target control system. “The local councils had neither the financial resources nor the experience,” analyses Swedish educational historian Hans Albin Larsson; “There were no longer any precise quality standards.” Commercialisation followed in the 2000s. The buzzwords were a free choice of school, education vouchers and private, for-profit school providers to foster more competition. Incorporated school companies invaded local districts, with financial returns of four to six per cent; some raked in profits of 15%. At the same time, school education became ever more geographically and socially unbalanced. Children from higher-income families accumulated in the private schools, while those from poorer families lagged behind. The openly competitive struggle between school locations further fuelled social segregation. However, performance problems also arose in the private schools: “The most important thing is not to give the school students a sound education, but to satisfy them as customers,” as educational historian Larsson describes the dynamics. The result has been an inflation of good marks and increasing pressure on teachers to not, as far as possible, let anyone fail.
The majority of Swedes now regard the privatisation of the school system as a mistake. Two out of every three private agencies are venture capital companies. When one of them filed for bankruptcy a year ago, 10 000 school students had to look for a new school in the middle of the school year. “We were naive,” admits Per, whom I met last week at a large conference of social service providers in Stockholm. He did, he explains, have great expectations. “But the results have been disastrous.” In the current OECD performance comparison, Sweden’s school students have worsened the most. Their results now lie below the OECD average in mathematics, reading and natural sciences. The gap between the more strongly performing and weaker school students has widened; social origin is now more apparent in the results than it was in the past.
At the conference, nurses described similar developments in nursing. Above all, the scandals surrounding nursing care providers like “Carema” rankle. Public money which is remodelled into profits and subsequently siphoned off to tax havens; internal loans which elude taxation; drastic personnel cuts, made at the expense of those most in need. They explained there was great indignation due to the unaffordability of nursing care and the private profits that were simultaneously being made in the social sector.
Lessons can be learned from these experiences. A variety of welfare state models exist in Europe: all have their strengths and weaknesses. The social science term for Austria and Germany’s welfare state model is a “Bismarckian” welfare state – named after the German Reich Chancellor who introduced the social insurance system as a solution to the social struggles of the 19th century. Bismarck wanted to pacify the workers while, however, simultaneously preserving the social hierarchies. Right up to the present day, the model has displayed structural problems that require reform: a socially impermeable school system, few cases of universal achievement, underdeveloped social services, a large gap between women and men, and an administrative system that sees people not as citizens but as subjects. In the area of school policy, much is still implemented in the spirit of the authoritarian welfare state, the “Nanny State” which deigns to bestow a pittance on its under-age children.
Where school is concerned, it is still certainly better to look to Finland or Canada, where performance and justice go hand in hand. School systems can help their best pupils to attain top-rate qualifications, while at the same time still ensuring that the gap between the weakest and the strongest school students remains small. Canada’s schools display the smallest differences in academic achievement between fifteen-year-old school students. This reduction of performance disparities is not achieved at the cost of the strongest performers, but results exclusively from the improved performance of the weaker school students.
In the course of future reforms here in Austria, special attention will have to be paid to teaching quality, teacher training, schoolroom architecture and the far too early educational division of children when they are only 10 years old. This will benefit not only the children, but all the rest of us as well. According to estimates made by educational scientists Hanushek and Wössmann, the annual growth of Austria‘s gross national product would increase by half a per cent if the proportion of school leavers with poor reading skills could be reduced to zero.
Published in: “Format” magazine, October 2014