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Swedish education reform: High ambitions and troubling results

Lisbeth Lundahl
Traduction(s) :
La réforme suédoise de l’éducation : de grandes ambitions, des résultats préoccupants [fr]


Au début des années 1990, la Suède opère un virage radical en décentralisant à l’extrême son système éducatif dans une logique de marché, afin d’améliorer la qualité et l’efficience de l’éducation, en termes de résultats et de coûts. La situation actuelle est loin de correspondre aux objectifs des réformateurs : en moyenne, les résultats des élèves baissent, à la fois sur la durée et dans les comparaisons internationales, tandis que la ségrégation scolaire augmente. On manque cruellement de connaissances sur les aspects économiques. Des efforts ont été entrepris en vue d’atténuer ces évolutions négatives en renforçant le contrôle et l’évaluation par l’État, mais les principales caractéristiques du système éducatif introduites dans les années 1990 demeurent largement inchangées.

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Decentralization, deregulation and marketization

1Sweden underwent a radical shift in the early 1990s from strong central-state governing of education and very few private schools to a highly decentralized system promoting school choice and competition between public as well as private actors. Based on generous vouchers and liberal authorization rules, the private school sector has expanded at a high pace. Allowing profit-making without demands of reinvestment in schools, education has increasingly attracted large limited liability companies – something that makes the Swedish case outstanding in international comparisons (Alexiadou, Lundahl & Rönnberg, 2019). However, this Swedish “revolution” in the field of education met surprisingly little resistance. Previously often following in the footsteps of Sweden, the other Nordic countries have been far more cautious about adopting a similar transformation of education. However, elements of parental choice and New Public Management have been visible even here (Dovemark et al., 2018).

2A social democratic government (1982–1991) initiated a first set of decentralization and deregulation reforms. The aim was both promoting the development of education and local democracy by giving municipalities and schools considerable freedom to allocate and use resources aligned to local conditions and needs. Consequently, large numbers of detailed regulations – mainly requirements for obtaining state subsidies for various purposes – were abolished. A consecutive set of school choice reforms, initiated by a non-socialist coalition government (1991–1994), was to ensure that parents and children had the “greatest possible freedom” to choose a school, thereby raising cost efficiency and improving public education by “stimulating competition” (Alexiadou et al., 2019). This, rather than (the long-dominant) state regulation or semi-autonomous school professionals, was now seen as the main driver behind educational development. The described development did not mean a retrenchment of the state but rather that the state and politics took on new roles, not least as a key enabler of competition (Alexiadou et al., 2019).

A discouraging development

3The education reforms of the early 1990s have been clearly successful in one respect: parental and student choice opportunities have increased considerably, at least in the urban regions where the number of competing schools has multiplied. In other respects, the emerging picture is disappointing. Firstly, evaluations and reports unanimously conclude that the local variations resulting from decentralization and deregulation are unacceptably large, given the longstanding political objective of educational equity, Secondly, starting from a high level, the average educational achievement of Swedish students has declined markedly from the 1990s and onwards, as measured by large international assessments (PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS) – both over time and compared to other countries, even if a certain recovery took place in the mid-2010s (OECD, 2016). Thirdly, Sweden, which previously belonged to the countries with low degrees of school segregation, has faced increased homogenization within and segregation between schools. Most researchers agree that the school choice system has contributed to this development (Brandén & Bygren, 2018). The reforms mentioned above are not the only reasons for the observed development. Increasing social differences more generally, large refugee immigration in the 1990s and 2000s, considerable teacher shortage, and the low attractiveness of the teaching profession are some of the other factors, but the decentralized and marketized education system amplifies rather than counteracts the negative processes of segregation and declining achievement (e.g. Östh, Andersson & Malmberg, 2013). Fourthly, and surprisingly, there is almost no research on the economic efficiency aspect of the Swedish decentralization and market reforms; here added knowledge would be desirable.

Policy lessons from the Swedish case

4The initial decentralisation reforms presupposed local politicians, teachers and principals as prime change agents. The subsequent reforms, however, reduced the professional agency of teachers substantially. The voucher reforms of the 1990s transferred the emphasis to parental choice and school competition as drivers of educational development. In the 2000s, the state took a stronger role in regulating, standardizing and controlling educational development, for instance, through increased quality assessment and evaluation, more frequent testing and grading, and strengthening the role of principals as school managers. Possibilities to reduce local autonomy by reintroducing some of the previous state steering were investigated but without resulting in reform decisions. The same is true for a pending committee proposal to curtail extraction of profits.

5The Swedish case raises a number of questions: What enabled this swift and radical policy shift in the first place? What mechanisms prevented major corrections when the development went in quite a different direction than that envisaged in the reform decisions of the early 1990s? What future policy steps would it be possible to take to increase the quality and equality of Swedish education, and how can political decision-makers reduce school segregation? My ambition is to highlight at least the first two of these questions in my presentation. The final question still remains to be answered.

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ALEXIADOU N., LUNDAHL L. and RÖNNBERG L. (2019): “Shifting logics: Education and privatisation the Swedish way”, in WILKINSON Jane, NIESCHE Richard and EACOTT Scott (eds.), Challenges for public education: Reconceptualising educational leadership, policy and social justice as resources for hope, Abingdon: Routledge, p. 116–131.

BRANDÉN M. and BYGREN M. (2018): “School Choice and School Segregation: Lessons from Sweden’s School Voucher System”, The IAS Working Paper Series 2018 (1), Linköping University, The Institute for Analytical Sociology.

DOVEMARK M., KOSUNEN S., KAUKO J., MAGNÚSDÓTTIR B.R., HANSEN P. and RASMUSSEN P. (2018): “Deregulation, Privatisation and Marketisation of Nordic Comprehensive Education: Social Changes Reflected in Schooling”, Education Inquiry, vol. 9, no. 1, p. 122–141.

OECD (2016): “Sweden: Country Note: Result from PISA 2015”. Online [ Downloaded 2018-12-15]

ÖSTH J., ANDERSSON E. and MALMBERG B. (2013): “School Choice and Increasing Performance Difference: A Counterfactual Approach”, Urban Studies, vol. 50, no. 2, p. 407–425.

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Référence électronique

Lisbeth Lundahl, « Swedish education reform: High ambitions and troubling results »Revue internationale d’éducation de Sèvres [En ligne], Colloque 2019 : Conditions de réussite des réformes en éducation, mis en ligne le 11 juin 2019, consulté le 25 janvier 2021. URL :

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Lisbeth Lundahl

University of Umeå, Sweden
Lisbeth Lundahl is a professor at the Department of Applied Educational Science at Umeå University, Sweden. Her research interests concern education politics, youth politics and the school-to-work transitions of young people. She is the leader of the research programme “Education policy and young people’s transitions” at Umeå University, and one of the team leaders of the Nordic Centre Social Justice through Education. Lisbeth Lundahl was the Secretary General of the European Educational Research Association (EERA) from 2006 to 2008 and is one of the founders of the Swedish Educational Research Association (SWERA).

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