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What’s it like to work as a foreign teacher at Swedish free school chain IES?

Internationella Engelska Skolan, the free school chain that made its founder nearly a billion kronor, pays its qualified foreign teachers low wages and gives them duties they have not trained for, several teachers who work for the chain have told The Local.

What's it like to work as a foreign teacher at Swedish free school chain IES?
Internationella Engelska Skolan is one of Sweden's leading free school chains. File photo not linked to the article. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Six foreign teachers who had worked at or were still working for schools run by Internationella Engelska Skolan (International English School – IES) spoke to The Local about significant discrepancies in salaries between Swedish teachers with local qualifications and the foreign teachers who form a large proportion of the company’s staff. 

They also said that even as new graduates, they were asked to teach classes of as many as 32 pupils single-handed, and were also asked to teach subjects and age groups they had not been trained for. Two said they had been given multiple administrative jobs without being given extra time to do them. 

“Internationals are severely underpaid in comparison to Swedish teachers. That’s not a secret,” said a teacher at an IES school in southern Sweden who is leaving their school at the end of this term. “I started on 25,000 (approximately $2,750), and my friend started on 26,000. The pay is super unfair.” 

On the employee review site Glassdoor, there are more than 20 reviews complaining of “terrible pay” at IES. The average teacher’s salary in Sweden is between 30,000 and 40,000 kronor, although it varies a lot.

With 48 schools in Sweden, IES is one of Sweden’s largest chains of private “free schools”, which are funded by the government but operated independently, often by profit-making companies.

The schools are facing renewed scrutiny in Sweden as the ruling Social Democrats prepare to campaign in the run-up to next year’s election on a pledge to forbid the owners of free schools from taking out profits and to force them to use the same queuing system for admissions as municipal schools. 

IES came into the spotlight just before Christmas after the chain’s American founder Barbara Bergström gave a combative interview in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper, dismissing criticism of her schools as “bullshit”. 

She made 918 million kronor when she sold the chain to the Boston-based equity fund TA Associates in 2012. The fund listed the company on the Stockholm Stock Exchange in 2016 and it was then taken private again last year by the Berlin-based Paradigm Capital. Bergström’s foundation remains a major owner with 18 percent of the shares.

Internationella Engelska Skolan’s founder Barbara Bergström. Photo: Malin Hoelstad/SvD/TT

‘They expect a revolving door’

The school tends to hire teachers directly at university careers fairs back in their home countries. About half of the group’s 2,300 teachers are educated in English-speaking countries, with 14 percent from the UK and Ireland, 11 percent from the US, 9 percent from Canada and 22 percent from the rest of the world. Some 42 percent of teachers have English as their first language.

As these hires do not know how the Swedish system works, they are not likely to push hard for a better salary, several teachers argued. The school then replaces these teachers with new fresh graduates once they tire of the large class sizes and low salaries. 

“As an international, you’re never told that you can negotiate your pay ever during the meeting. Never,” the teacher based in southern Sweden said. “What they’re expecting is a revolving door. They’re expecting people to leave. And that’s how they can get away with paying people so low.” 

Another teacher, who worked in a senior role at one of the schools earlier this decade, confirmed the pay discrepancy between local and international hires.  

“I’ve seen all the salaries of all the foreign teachers, and they massively underpay the foreign teachers – you’re talking 10,000 kronor differences for people with the same experience,” the teacher said.


The Swedish Teachers’ Union (Lärarförbundet) said they were aware of the problem.

“There is a significant number of teachers with temporary employment and very low wages in the company, who are in a weak negotiation position compared to the Swedish teachers,” Johanna Jaara Åstrand, the union’s chairperson, told The Local. “The situation is extremely unsatisfying.” 

But she said that because the collective bargaining agreement between the municipalities, private operators, and non-profit organisations which run Sweden’s schools has not set specific wage levels since 1995, it was difficult to challenge IES’s low starting wages, once foreign teachers have agreed to them. 

“This model has worked well for teachers in Sweden, as a result of the short supply and high demand for teachers during the past 20 years,” said Jaara Åstrand.

“A lot of teachers with Swedish teaching licences were able to find other employers who valued them more and quit their jobs at IES. The international teachers already at the school do not have the same opportunity. This has led to a huge wage gap,” she said. 

It is difficult, however, for unions in Sweden to argue that the wage gap is discriminatory, as IES can claim that the pay was set by the free market, and freely agreed to by the teachers. Foreign citizens are also not in themselves a group protected by anti-discrimination legislation. 

Younger teaching staff

IES told The Local that its starting salaries for new international hires had increased in the last few years but put the low average down to the fact that 66 percent of IES teachers are under 40, compared with 32 percent of teachers in Sweden on average. 

“IES teaching staff are younger than the Swedish national average and a significant part of our international teachers come to Sweden straight from university, all of which is reflected in their salary,” said Robin Kirk Johansson, head of education at IES. “When looking at national salary statistics, we are on par for most age groups.”

All IES contracts follow national and local union agreements, she added, including annual salary revision. The company has signed a collective bargaining agreement through the Almega employers’ organisation. 

IES in Älvsjö

Teachers in Sweden typically earn 30,000 to 40,000 kronor. Photo: Lars Pehrson/SvD/TT

Jaara Åstrand said that as her union found it difficult to challenge IES practices in employment courts, it had concentrated on trying to inform graduate teachers abroad of the need to negotiate a decent starting wage. 

People with no previous knowledge of the Swedish labour market are often unaware of just how crucial it is compared to many other countries to negotiate a good entry salary, with future annual raises usually being limited to small percentage increases negotiated by the unions. Once in Sweden, the only way they can substantially boost their earnings is to move to a new employer.

The Swedish Teachers’ Union has set up a web page, informing potential international recruits of salaries in Sweden.

“The right moment to reach an agreement regarding your salary is before signing your employment contract,” the website warns applicants. “Your initial salary with an employer is crucial for your future salary development with that employer.”

Stress, overwork, and poor mental health

It is not just low pay. 

Several teachers told The Local that they had too many responsibilities for the hours they were paid to work. The senior teacher who no longer works for the group said that when they arrived at their school, they discovered they had been given what would have been four separate jobs at the international schools where they had worked previously. 

“There’s a lot of hidden duties that you don’t know about when you’re initially hired,” said another teacher at a school in southern Sweden. “They don’t go over the details of the mentor programme, which is a really big part of IES culture, and all of the in-depth meetings that you have with students, parents, the school team, and your department.”

“Things get swept under the rug initially, and then after you’ve been in it for a while, you realise, ‘oh, there’s a lot more work than they initially told us’.” 

A teacher at a school in Stockholm said they were made to teach maths and home economics at primary school level, when they had trained in the US to be a secondary school teacher in two completely different subjects.

“The company will throw you into whatever position they need filled,” she said. “So I got my qualifications to teach high school students, and I’ve been teaching primary school students aged nine and ten, which has been fine, but I trained to teach the older students for a reason, and I would like to teach the age groups and the subjects that I actually got qualified to teach.” 

a student at a desk

The Local spoke to six teachers for this article. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

The extra responsibilities take their toll even on the youngest and most enthusiastic teachers. 

A survey carried out by the union at one school, whose results were passed to The Local, found that 65 percent of members felt they didn’t have enough time to do their jobs properly, a majority felt they had more responsibilities than they were paid for, and a majority said they were working more hours than they were paid for. 

As many as 70 percent said they felt “stressed” or “extremely stressed”, 60 percent said that the job was “affecting their mental health”, 40 percent said they felt “burned out”, and 34 percent said they were considering leaving the school. 

Kirk Johansson, head of education at IES said their headteachers were formally responsible for dealing with complaints from teaching staff, with the support of the central human resources division, although some teachers told The Local no steps had been taken whenever they had raised problems.

First of all, our staff are very important to us,” said Kirk Johansson. “If a formal complaint is lodged, it’s always thoroughly investigated and actions are taken based on that investigation. For serious misconduct in operations, a whistle-blower function is in place. If it is brought to our attention that a personnel matter has been handled in an incorrect way, we would immediately take action to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” 

IES founder Barbara Bergström receiving Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur Of The Year award in Sweden in 2014. Photo: Maja Suslin/TT

Unions, residency permits, and language problems

Many work contracts in Sweden include a six-month trial period, during which employees have limited employment rights.

“When the union got involved, they said there’s not much we can do, because you’re on a probation contract for six months,” the senior teacher said of a dispute with school management. 

As most international recruits, particularly those from the US and Canada, only have residency rights in Sweden as a result of their employment contract with IES, they are also often reluctant to complain. 

“You’re always like, is this going to risk my job position here? I could have to leave the country because of this,” said one of two teachers we spoke to who work in Stockholm.

The senior teacher we spoke to accused the group’s management of switching away from English to gloss over difficult issues during the hiring process.

“They present themselves as an international school, but actually it’s anything but an international school,” the teacher said. “Half of the actual induction was in Swedish. I was like, ‘What the hell is this? Why are these sections, these important legal sections, in Swedish?’.”

File photo, not linked to the article, of a teacher’s lounge at an IES school in Sweden. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Fast promotions and early responsibilities 

One of the teachers based in Stockholm pointed out that for young, ambitious new teachers, there was a positive side to the school’s reliance on international teaching graduates, as new graduates at IES get a lot of responsibility very quickly. 

“You could be the head of the department in your second year at IES. You could be head of school in your second or third year of IES,” she said. “It can be very quick to move high up in your job position, which is actually incredible. Not many schools do that. It’s very rare for you to be able to do that so early on in your career.” 

The downside, however, is that the chain gives responsibility to staff who sometimes lack the experience to cope with it.

For the teachers themselves, this can help get jobs at other schools. “The advantage is more for your next job. So you can say, ‘in my second year of teaching, I was already the head of department’,” the Stockholm teacher said.

But the quick turnover of teachers, some complained, affected the quality of students’ education. 

“I think it’s important for students to have teachers that are there for them for the long haul. And it’s really uncommon in normal schools to have teachers that leave every two to three years,” said one of the teachers based in southern Sweden. “It’s not fair to those students to have people that they trust, that they rely on for their education, who just leave.” 

Do you have a story about living and working in Sweden to share with The Local, or more information about working at the IES? Email our editorial team at [email protected].

Member comments

  1. I used to work for this school 12 years ago and everything in this article is true. Low wages and extra work assignments and not getting paid were the main reasons I left. It was very unfair to the kids, the amount of turnover in the school staff.

  2. Sadly, this problem isn’t limited to IES. As a teacher with 15+ years experience and a master’s degree, I was paid 27,000 at both Malmö International School and ISLK in Lund. Ask any teacher at either place, and they’ll tell you it’s the norm.

  3. It’s pretty cool when equity funds make money at the expense of teachers and students.

    Sometimes I’m home sick for the US, stories like this make me feel like I haven’t gone so far.

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For members


‘Sometimes I explode inside’: How foreigners in Sweden become more Swedish to fit in

We asked The Local’s readers in Sweden whether they’ve tried making themselves more Swedish to fit in, what they’ve done and why they did it.

'Sometimes I explode inside': How foreigners in Sweden become more Swedish to fit in

Many thanks to everyone who responded to our survey, out of which more than a third (we heard from 74 readers in total, representing at least 25 nationalities) said they had tried to make themselves more Swedish to fit into life in Sweden.

Some said it was a conscious decision out of respect for their new country.

“I think it’s important to be aware of the social customs and rules of a society that one has decided to join and to integrate and assimilate as much as possible, but one can always balance this with ways to maintain your original identity,” said Diane from Australia.

“But I think it’s important that since we have made the decision to live in a new place that we give it the respect and value that it deserves by learning and understanding the written and unwritten rules and looking to largely follow them (there’s always some wiggle room of course – common sense must prevail!).”

Many readers mentioned dressing in more muted than bright colours, speaking more quietly, avoiding bragging about themselves, respecting other people’s privacy more, avoiding conflict or simply just learning to speak the language or observing Swedish traditions and customs such as Midsummer’s Eve or fika breaks, as things they had started doing differently since moving to Sweden.

Some people said that the change had happened organically over time, as a natural part of picking up new habits and customs from the new environment around you, and many people said they had found it to be a positive experience.

“Changed the way I dress, work out where I need to be on the train in order to be close to the exit when I get off the train, work in week numbers and not a specific date and more wary when approaching strangers,” said Ami, a teacher from South Africa. “In some ways I’ve enjoyed being more Swedish. I felt more pressure with changing the way I dress but I have enjoyed it.”

Some said it was a deliberate decision which had paid off in terms of feeling more at home in Sweden but also in terms of developing as a person and discovering new sides of themselves.

Pinelopi, a reader from Greece who lives in Värmland in central Sweden, said she felt like becoming more Swedish – for example by taking part in traditions, talking about the weather and mimicking Swedish sounds like saying “ah” for “yes” – had opened up more opportunities for her to feel like she lived in the country “for real”, and that Swedes had responded by being more friendly and open to her.

“Even though you can live in Sweden without being fluent in Swedish, learning the language really opened up a lot of opportunities for social network building,” she added. “I wanted to build a life here and I live by ‘when in Rome…’ I feel lucky because I can choose aspects of being Swedish that work well for me as well as integrating aspects of being Greek into my identity that Swedes seem to respect and even admire, for example being decisive and not being afraid to speak up if something doesn’t feel right.”


She wasn’t the only one who pointed out that having your feet in two cultures could be a bonus as it meant being able to pick the best of both, although those who said this also acknowledged that they were able to do so because their home culture was generally well respected in Sweden.

“Appear less egotistical in CV. Talk less loudly. Don’t work more hours or ‘harder’ than colleagues. Lower expectations, go for lagom rather than the best,” said Kristen from the US, who said she made the choice to change consciously and without any social pressure.

“It’s just a part of integrating in another culture. You look around to see what others do and try to follow along and fit in. I also chose to learn Swedish. Sometimes I feel that I am not acting like my true self here in order to fit in and be successful. On the other hand, I can definitely get away with behaviour outside the socially acceptable norm, because I am American, and not Swedish,” she said.

Theodore, a PhD student and another reader from the US, said that he saw it as personal growth:

“We Americans can struggle culturally with a desire to overshare our accomplishments and speak too much to keep conversations going. Sweden’s egalitarian culture of humble quietude provides a really great way for me to reflect on my own ‘American’ impulses and how I move through the world because of them. These differences can be found between cultures everywhere and I believe it provides a great opportunity for personal growth, even when adjustments can be hard.”

Gaurav from India said that for him, it had happened automatically “but probably driven by a subliminal urge to fit in which is much more potent than I’d ever accept, coming from the diverse concoction that is India” and added that it had on the whole had both positive and negative effects on him.

“In the cases where fitting in has made my life better (more runs, better diet), it’s been fun! But in some of the cases where I find myself withdrawing to a more private life where I pretend to ride on a high horse and ignore others or judge them – it’s been a conscious struggle to remind myself who the real me is and not go too far into the jantelagen way of life!” he said.

Khalid, a Palestinian engineer in Jönköping, said it was the absence of pressure from his closest circle to fit in which made him feel comfortable to pick up Swedish habits and traits.

“Speaking the language, participating and even taking up a role on the board at one of the local sports associations. Taking up a Swedish nickname, being on time. Waiting for others to finish their sentences then saying ja precis, buying local products and dining at Ikea once a week,” he said.

Extremely traditional Midsummer’s Eve celebrations in Dalarna. Photo: Ulf Palm/TT

Nick from the UK said he kept himself more private and less gregarious or spontaneous than in his pre-Swedish life, but that fitting in had mostly come with increased familiarity of the system.

“It was initially a conscious decision but over time it’s become the norm of how I behave, and many of the friends I’ve kept from prior to my move to Sweden seem louder than I remember them being previously. I do still like to strike up a conversation with a random stranger, however,” he said.

Some saw adapting to more Swedish ways of life as a pragmatic means to an end.

“Staying calm even when I am angry about somebody, never shouting as I would do in my home country,” said Erwin from Switzerland, who said he had realised that staying calm and avoiding conflict would help him get further. “Sometimes I explode inside, but am happy to get what I want.”

But not everyone was happy with how they had changed since moving to Sweden. A common regret was that the pressure to integrate and assimilate had caused them to feel like they had lost part of their own personality and been forced into being less outspoken and friendly.

“I feel my soul is dead and I am a robot now most of the time,” said an Indian engineer in Stockholm. “Subconsciously I now have an emotionless face in public transport which is like a ‘don’t disturb me’ face. I used to be a happy and open person before moving here.”

“I have become quieter and less outlandish and less contrarian,” said a reader who preferred to remain anonymous. They said that the change hadn’t been the result of outside pressure and had happened automatically, but had nevertheless left them depressed and frustrated.

“I feel like being more Swedish has dulled my shine, the unique part of my personality that made me, me,” they said.

stockholm metro

A lot of readers said they interacted less with strangers than they used to. Photo: Ali Lorestani/TT

A teacher based outside Stockholm said she had slowly become less verbal and enthusiastic in work meetings as she found there was very little reaction to her enthusiasm and energy.

“It has been both positive and negative,” she said. “On the positive side I have taken a more passive and observing role which means I don’t feel I have to contribute. On the negative side, I have many great ideas for developing the organisation which I don’t share any more.”

“I am not as friendly any more. When I first moved here I was really friendly and went out of my way to say hi to people. I got shut down so many times that I stopped doing it,” said Molly, an American reader living in the countryside outside Halmstad in south-western Sweden.

“I feel like I’m not my full self, less joyful as I can’t share my sense of humour. I’m not usually successful in making jokes in Swedish. Previously I enjoyed making people laugh, being witty,” she said.


A French reader said he used less sarcasm than he used to and that he was more careful watching his words to avoid offending anyone, including being less direct and spontaneous overall.

“I wouldn’t say it was imposed on me, but I felt like it was a way to fit in, which is a psychological construct and not a necessity (embrace your differences),” he said.

Some people said the experience had left them feeling lonely, including a Gothenburg-based reader from Hong Kong who said she now avoided asking people personal questions, and a British teacher in Stockholm who said she had stopped making eye contact or trying to talk to strangers, because “Swedes do this to me so no point in trying any more”.

While the majority of people said they had tried to change themselves in order to fit in, some people said they hadn’t.

Some said it was because they simply felt no need to, either because they came from a country similar enough to Sweden, or because they felt they were accepted anyway.

A couple of people said they hadn’t tried to change because they had no Swedish friends to learn from or to fit in with, and some said they refused to compromise themselves to appease others.

“I am not going to change who I am to fit in. It took me some time but I found friends, both international and Swedish that share the same values and interests. I have also learned Swedish, as I like languages,” said a French-Lebanese reader in Stockholm.

“I think diversity in society is really healthy, so I have avoided trying to become more Swedish because Swedish society is so homogeneous,” said Alexander, an American reader in Stockholm.

“While there are some great things about Swedish society, Swedes could benefit greatly from an increased exposure to greater cultural and intellectual diversity,” he added. “I think Swedes have much more to gain from opening themselves up to new ideas and cultures from around the world than foreigners do by conforming to extremely narrow and restrictive Swedish norms and ideals.”

Rakesh, an Indian-Swedish IT architect in Stockholm, said he had found “no need to change and practically it’s not possible for anyone to change, it’s just we need to respect others and be mindful with our public and social behaviour”.

“We as members of this society need to understand our rights and responsibility. Respecting diversity is already part of Indian society,” he said. “Apart from language and food, I never felt any adjustment was needed to become part of this society.”

Have you made yourself more Swedish to fit in? Join the conversation in the comments below.