Why The Local’s IES story has caused such a stir in Sweden

An investigative article by The Local into what it's like to work as a foreign teacher at Sweden's largest free school chain, IES, has raised eyebrows and sparked much debate. Here's why it is such a controversial issue – and why its impact goes beyond just teachers.

Why The Local's IES story has caused such a stir in Sweden
File photo of an IES school and inset, The Local's article. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

We have a strong relationship with our readers here at The Local, but it’s been a long time since we received so much reaction to a single article as we did to our investigative report on the hotly debated Swedish free school chain Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES).

IES had already been making the rounds in Swedish media, and came into the spotlight again just before Christmas after the chain’s American founder, Barbara Bergström, dismissed criticism of her schools as “bullshit” in an interview in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper.

About half of their teachers are educated in English-speaking countries, so we knew that as a news site for foreign residents we had unique access to covering this story from an angle that had not been addressed as much in the Swedish media: What’s it actually like to work there?

We had heard rumours, but wanted to find out whether or not they were true, so our journalist Richard Orange started putting out feelers to see if there were any teachers who might be willing to speak with The Local, anonymously, to share their experience.

It took weeks of research and interviews, but in the end, it resulted in an in-depth article in which he spoke to six foreign teachers – current and former – at the IES as well as the union and the company itself. And apart from the company, they all said the same thing:

Foreign teachers at the schools are significantly underpaid compared to Swedish teachers with local qualifications (the company on the other hand argues that its salaries have gone up in recent years and are on par with the national average for most age groups).

Many also spoke of stress, overwork, and being forced to take on responsibilities they were not ready for.

This is made possible because many foreign teachers are recruited fresh out of university in their home countries, aren’t fully informed of how Swedish salaries are set or what their rights are, and are grateful for the opportunity to move abroad and quickly get professional experience. Because their Swedish residence permit is often tied to their job, when the illusion drops, they are afraid to speak out.

But there’s clearly a need to talk about this issue, which affects many of our readers. After we published our article, we quickly started receiving several comments and emails from foreign teachers from several IES schools who said it was time to lift the lid on this.

“Low wages and extra work assignments and not getting paid were the main reasons I left,” wrote a former teacher and member of The Local in the comments section under the article. “It was very unfair to the kids, the amount of turnover in the school staff.”

“Having worked there previously, I can absolutely confirm the claims,” wrote another. “They hide behind that their schools are perceived as being more orderly, and that students get better results than non-free schools, but the institution’s problems are deep-seated and many.”

The Local’s article also caused a stir in the Swedish-speaking community, with hundreds of people sharing it on social media.

“Finally we hear from teachers at IES,” tweeted one account in Swedish.

“This is not good for anyone,” tweeted another.

So why is it grabbing so much attention?

Well, partly because it follows several other articles in the Swedish press. Most recently, Aftonbladet wrote about how one IES school, in Täby north of Stockholm, measured the length of girls’ skirts and handed out leggings to those whose skirts were deemed to short (which is controversial in fairly liberal and gender-equal Sweden where IES already sticks out for being one of few schools to enforce a dress code at all).

The school responded to the articles about its dress code on its website.

It also ties into a wider debate about Sweden’s “free school” system. Since reforms carried out by the then centre-right government in the 1990s, independently run “free schools” (friskolor, or “charter schools”) have been allowed to receive public funding in return for following national education policy, and parents are able to freely enrol their child at them without being tied to geographical catchment areas.

For proponents, the schools contribute to a cost-effective, competitive and efficient approach to learning, where talented students are allowed to shine and choose their own future. For critics, they increase segregation, lead to grade inflation and put the schools’ focus on marketing themselves to attract as many students (and thereby funding) as possible, rather than improving the quality of teaching.

With almost 50 schools across Sweden, IES is the largest free school chain. Its critics have accused it of squeezing out local schools run by the municipality when it moves into a new town like a hurricane; proponents argue it simply raises the bar, which can only be a good thing.

Critics worry that its English-language curriculum teaches children English at the expense of their written and spoken Swedish; its founder argues that mastering the English language is crucial for children who want to thrive in a modern and increasingly international world.

But perhaps most controversially, while not all free schools are run by profit-making companies, IES is among those that are. Its founder made 918 million kronor (approximately $100 million) when she sold the chain to the Boston-based equity fund TA Associates in 2012. 

The schools are facing renewed scrutiny in Sweden as the ruling Social Democrats prepare to campaign in the run-up to the September election on a pledge to forbid the owners of free schools from taking out profits while at the same time receiving funding from the tax payer. But with many parties wanting to keep the current system, it’s likely to be an increasingly divisive issue the closer to the September election we get.

For us here at The Local, our main focus is on our readers, Sweden’s international community. The Swedish school system and even the political game are both able to capture people’s interest to be sure, but what we really want is to tell the story of how it affects you.

So whether you’re a foreign teacher at IES (or any other school), an international parent or a student at one of these schools, we want to hear from you. You know better than most what the downsides are – and the benefits. And we’re sure you have stories to tell.

After all, as one reader told us: “These things should not be kept under the radar.”

Member comments

  1. The English School Gothenburg is an excellent example of a school focused on nurturing the needs of international students whilst supporting complete intregration by teaching Swedish from day one and following the Swedish curriculum. It is also very popular with Swedish families.

  2. These problems are not just limited to the IES group, they are endemic in the Swedish school system. There are many forces pushing to inflate grades: students themselves, parents, teachers and school management. Moreover the grades achieved by a class are the currency by which a teacher’s effectiveness is often judged – and can be linked to pay and promotion. There is little incentive to counteract these forces – moreover doing so may cause problems for the teacher as detailed in the original article. One answer is to bring in objective external assessment such as as the examinations and externally moderated internal assessment used by the IB and other systems. My partner who has worked for skolverket and has seen detailed grade statistics confirms that grade inflation is a major issue undermining the validity of the assessment system in Swedish schools in general. Moreover, universities now find themselves having to spend time and resources on covering material that should have been mastered at upper secondary level. The culprit? The requirement to get students through the course ‘come what may’. I have taught teachers training to be English subject teachers at a Swedish university who would have been in the remedial category two decades ago. These teachers will grade their students in the same way as they themselves were graded. So the problem is compounded and baked into the system. What is needed is teachers, school leaders, and government to find the political will to change a system that is not fit for purpose before it is too late.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Swedish students’ maths and reading scores plunge in Pisa world rankings

The performance of Swedish teenagers has plummeted in maths and reading according to the latest Pisa world rankings, reversing much of the country's improvement in recent years.

Swedish students' maths and reading scores plunge in Pisa world rankings

Swedish ninth-graders (15-year-olds) scored 482 in mathematics (down 21 points compared to the latest survey in 2018) and 487 in reading (down 19 points on 2018) in 2022. Their results remained within the margins of error in science, with a score of 494 (down 6 points).

Sweden’s results are now only marginally better than they were in 2012, when they dropped so sharply that they provoked scathing criticism and calls for reforms of the school system. The country then managed to improve its results in 2018, leading to a collective sigh of relief.

Unlike in 2012, the new drop follows a global trend, the head of the Swedish National Agency for Education pointed out at a press conference. Sweden remains above the OECD average in all three subjects, which wasn’t the case when the 2012 survey was carried out.

School closures during the Covid-19 pandemic were one factor behind the unprecedented decrease across the OECD, with Pisa finding that “students in systems that spared more students from longer closures scored higher in mathematics and reported a greater sense of belonging at school”.

Fifteen percent of students in Sweden reported that their school building was closed for more than three months during the pandemic, compared to 51 percent of OECD students on average.

But school closures don’t appear to have been a decisive factor, with Sweden’s results falling more sharply than the OECD average (maths -15, reading -10, and no significant change in science).

The general decline also began before the pandemic, and some countries, such as Japan, were able to maintain or even improve their results in 2022 compared to the 2018 survey.

Perhaps more worrying for Sweden is the inequality when it comes to the best performers and the worst performers, between whom the gaps widened in both science and mathematics.

Socio-economically advantaged students in Sweden outperformed disadvantaged students by 99 score points in mathematics according to Pisa, which was similar to the OECD average.

Around 25 percent of all students in the study came from socio-economically disadvantaged homes, with the corresponding share higher at 48 percent among students with an immigrant background (parents born outside of Sweden).

But even when socio-economic factors were removed, non-immigrant students still outperformed their immigrant classmates by 34 score points in mathematics, and 49 points in reading.

A clear gender divide was also noted, with girls outperforming boys by 37 points in reading. In mathematics, 28 percent of boys and 26 percent of girls were considered low performers. But in reading, 18 percent of girls and 30 percent of boys recorded low scores.

Globally, Singapore topped the table in all three subjects. In the Nordics, Finland scored the highest in both reading and science (490 and 511) and Denmark scored the highest in mathematics (489).