Swedish Schools: Show me the market!

Its nice to see the Tories screw up (again), but it is distressing to see fail what may have been a promising avenue for reforming schools.

The Swedish System of free schools, which is a key part of the Tories education draft manifesto, allows concerned parents or organisations acting as  charitable bodies to run schools.

Funded centrally, but with far greater autonomy than ordinary state schools, they were intended to introduce greater competition into the school sector and drive up quality as schools competed for pupils.

Unfortunately, it seems the Swedes are not as happy with their system as the Tory party are.

The schools are not driving up standards, or rather they are, but only by a self selection of the best pupils by the most opportunistic schools.

In general the school sector has not improved as predicted by the Swedes or as described by the Tories.

In fact, in some ways it has noticeably worsened. Segregation has said to increased in Sweden, a country where 18% of the population have foreign origins which had an otherwise excellent reputation for the way it greeted immigrants.

So why have the schools failed when the logic of competitive markets suggests they should thrive.

For a market to operate you don’t need too much, supply and demand, buyers and sellers. For a market to be efficient requires a great deal more.

It helps to have an infinite number of buyers and sellers. And of course it should be free for people to enter or exit business.

While some parents are content to move, most are not able to or do not want to, so the numbers of schools competing for each child is going to be relatively small. The costs of opening a school will be high and winding down a failing one will present an array of problems.

One particular failing would be badly exacerbated in the UK, where home ownership is one of the few fetishes positively encouraged. Owning our homes makes us far less mobile than our Teutonic brothers in Germany and would decrease the competition this system badly needs to work.

As Jospeh Stiglitz showed us one of the conditions for a perfect market is always lacking, perfect information. This would hold for the Swedish case as it is difficult to judge between independent schools effectively.

The above makes markets sound like an awful idea always. They are not. They are a great idea usually, I just want them introduced where they’ll do a good job, subverted where necessary and in certain cases superseded.

Just because it appears the Swedish schools have failed in achieving what they set out to do it does not follow that the current top down system we have leads to less severe failings by the state in providing education. Frinstance, Finland sounds interesting.

Much of my speculation on Sweden’s failings is just that; speculation. But the fact remains  that announcing a markets by diktat does not make it so.

So Gove, show me the market, show me the conditions for the market – don’t show me how you think it will create a market and don’t show me what you think will happen because the evidence doesn’t appear to back up your bravado.

More at Left Foot Forward (Hat Tip Paul Sagar)

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