Sweden’s schools: lessons from history to build a better future

by Jon Pareliussen, Sweden Desk, OECD Economics Department

Swedish schools entered
the 1990s from a position of strength, as one of the top performers in early
international school surveys, including the OECD Programme for International
Student Assessment (PISA). School governance was centralised, and implemented locally
by regional education boards. A suite of sweeping reforms in the early 1990s
decentralised the school system from the central to the municipal level and
introduced choice, competition and management by objectives. The general
direction of reform was common to several OECD countries at the time, some of
which perform well in international comparison.

However, the reforms seem
to have contributed to weakening results in Sweden. Implementation was not optimal,
as some municipalities were ill-prepared to take on the new tasks, and key
stakeholders, notably among teachers and school principals, were opposing the
new model. The reform design also had weaknesses. Regional education boards
were closed and municipalities were granted full autonomy over school funding, weakening  governance structures considerably, at a time
when the introduction of liberal entry for private (for-profit and non-profit)
school providers would have called for stronger governance and control.  

The latest vintage of PISA points to a brighter future for Sweden’s schools. Average results improved, reflecting at least partly recent government interventions. However, today is no time for complacency, as Sweden’s educational performance only climbed back to close to the OECD average. Inequalities across pupils and schools are widening, and children are increasingly segregated into schools with pupils from similar backgrounds. These developments are partially driven by broader societal trends, notably increasing income inequality and immigration. Nevertheless, the school system reinforces segregation instead of counteracting it, running the risk of depriving pupils of equal opportunities.

Against this backdrop, the
special chapter of the OECD Economic
Survey of Sweden 2019
describes and analyses the challenges facing primary
and lower secondary education in Sweden. A set of recommendations is outlined,
focussing on three main areas:

  • Economies of scale and the need for coordination
    calls for a partial recentralisation of some aspects of education policy. A
    centrally set minimum funding norm based on pupils’ socio-economic
    caracteritics would target funding better to needs and equity objectives. The
    norm should be non-binding and integrated in the existing system for cost- and income
    equalisation between municipalities, in line with established governance
    principles in Sweden. A regional arm of the central government governance
    structure should be re-built to enhance cooperation, improve skill development,
    promote continuous quality improvements, and instil accountability at every
    level of the school organisation.
  • Competition and school choice can be powerful
    tools to improve school quality, but private interests in many cases differ
    from the interests of society as a whole. Effective regulation and governance
    therefore need to steer private providers to deliver for the public good. Ensuring
    that grades fairly represent pupils’ skills and knowledge would reduce
    information asymmetries. Private schools’ admission procedures need regulation
    to hold back school segregation. Municipalities should adjust how they assign
    pupils to schools by promoting more socially mixed pupil groups while toning
    down the current strong focus on proximity. Investments in new school capacity
    can help counteract segregation, notably if coordination between municipalities
    and private providers improves.
  • High-quality teachers are a school’s most
    important asset, and Sweden faces teacher shortages. Teaching needs to become
    more attractive to recruit motivated and skilled students and retain high
    quality teachers in the profession. Better teacher education with a stronger
    research base and more teaching practice would help. Once in a job, teachers
    should face clearer career paths, incentives to progress, perform and take on
    challenging tasks as well as clear accountability for key outcomes, coupled
    with more cooperation, feedback and support between colleagues. A new regional
    arm of the central government governance structure should have a central role.

Sweden is now
moving towards a new round of school reforms, largely along these lines. A
clear lesson from the previous three decades of Swedish education history is
that reforming complex systems, warranted or not, can also be a risky
undertaking. The end result depends on reform design, implementation and intricate
interactions within the system undergoing reform as well as with the external

The need to adjust
to unintended consequences as complex reforms progress is inevitable, but accurately
identifying strengths, weaknesses and causality is challenging in hindsight,
and even more in real time. Not knowing exactly where you are and how you got
there reduces the likelihood of ending up where you want to be. Therefore, decision
makers should integrate experimentation, quantitative research and evaluations
into reform design in the next round of Swedish school reforms.


OECD (2019), OECD Economic Surveys: Sweden 2019, OECD Publishing, Paris.