As the share of students attending independent schools across Canada increases, the regulatory context of these non-government schools becomes increasingly relevant. Innovation, performance, and efficiency in this education sector can be enhanced by appropriate regulation and funding—or hindered by onerous or inappropriate regulation and funding—and thus other countries with long histories in independent schooling have lessons for Canada. Sweden’s experience is the focus of this paper.
Since Sweden embarked on its educational reforms in the early 1990s, its independent schooling sector developed and matured to the point where the share of students in Sweden enrolled in independent schools has increased significantly, rising from less than 2 percent in 1992 to 14.1 percent in primary and lower secondary grades and to 25.1 percent in the upper secondary grades in 2014.
Indeed, during this period education in Sweden was fundamentally transformed from one of the most centralized education systems in the OECD to one of the most decentralized. Funding was decentralized from the national to the municipal level, public school choice opportunities increased, and a national voucher system allowed for-profit and non-profit independent elementary and secondary schools to receive funding equivalent to 100 percent of the per-student allocation for average operating costs at local municipal schools.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most significant independent school enrolment growth occurred in the for-profit sector. In all, 64 percent of elementary and lower-secondary independent school students and 85 percent of upper-secondary independent school students attend for-profit schools. Thus, not only do independent schools in Sweden attract one in seven lower-grade students and one in four upper-secondary students in the country, but the vast majority of those students attend for-profit institutions.
For-profit independent schools tend to enrol, on average, more students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds compared with non-profit independent schools. Currently, the ten largest chains of for-profit schools enrol 36 percent of all independent school students.
Heller Sahlgren, Gabriel (2016), Regulation and Funding of Independent Schools: Lessons from Sweden. Vancouver, BC: Simon Fraser Institute. 71 pp.