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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.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: We should mourn the passing of Sweden’s neutrality

As Sweden prepares to join Nato, we should mourn the gradual passing of a neutral voice in global affairs, says David Crouch

OPINION: We should mourn the passing of Sweden’s neutrality

In the spring of 1999, Russia’s prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, was on a plane to Washington for talks, just as Nato announced airstrikes on Serbia. The bombing campaign, aimed at halting Serb attacks on Kosovo Albanians, targeted Russia’s Slav and Orthodox ally. On receiving the news, Primakov turned his plane around in mid-air and flew back to Moscow. 

This was the first major confrontation between East and West since the end of the Cold War. Russian public opinion swung overwhelmingly behind the Serbs. Moscow liberals warned the conflict would lead swiftly to “a strongly anti-Western, Cold War-oriented regime”. Vladimir Putin became prime minister that summer. And the rest is history. 

This was “blowback” for Nato – the unintended adverse consequences of a foreign policy intervention. This week, Putin is experiencing blowback himself following his invasion of Ukraine, with Sweden rushing headlong to join Nato, whose actions helped unite Russia so suddenly against the West a quarter of a century ago. 

Joining Nato brings down the curtain on a remarkable period in Swedish and European history. The last time the country declared war was in 1810 against the British. Not a single shot was fired, and peace was declared again two years later. Since then, Sweden has pursued a policy of neutrality in all armed conflicts. 

That era ended on Monday. The government confirmed what everyone knew already – that it would apply to join Nato.  

During the Cold War, neutrality gave Sweden the freedom to manoeuvre between the two blocs led by Moscow and Washington. Sweden joined widespread condemnation of the Soviet suppression of Czechoslovakia’s democratic uprising in 1968. 

But its emblematic leader Olof Palme also backed the global movement against the Vietnam war, hosting a tribunal in Stockholm that symbolically put the USA on trial for war crimes in Indo-China. Here was a nation that had found a middle way between capitalism and communism, it seemed, with a diplomatic as well as an economic dimension. 

Sweden became a leading voice against nuclear weapons. Successive leaders pushed for a nuclear-free zone in the Nordic and Baltic regions. Sweden’s self-image was of a “humanitarian superpower”, its independence on the world stage spilling over into anti-colonialism and feminism.

Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Sweden sought to make the most of the “peace dividend” offered by the end of the Cold War, closing military bases, ending conscription and slashing defence spending. By 2012 the head of the armed forces admitted Sweden could withstand a limited attack for only about a week

All this is now behind us. The middle way is to become the Nato way. Sweden may continue to object to nuclear weapons, but it has opted for the US nuclear umbrella to ensure its security. It may continue to champion liberal causes, but it will have to bite its tongue as its allies with conservative Nato states such as Hungary and Turkey, not to mention the possibility of a second Trump presidency in the US. 

Beyond the immediate concerns about Russian intentions in Ukraine, Sweden is contributing to the return of a polarised world. The optimism and hope heralded by the collapse of communism 30 years ago have turned out to be a chimera. New generations will grow up in fear of the enemy and in the shadow of nuclear annihilation. In these bleak circumstances, we should mourn the passing of Sweden’s neutrality in global affairs. 

It is unfortunate that Sweden’s historic pivot is taking place with unseemly haste. While public opinion has clearly shifted in favour of Nato since the invasion of Ukraine, the majority in favour is still relatively slim and is based on fear rather than thoughtful and thorough debate. In a poll at the end of April, 55 percent of Swedish men but only 41 percent of women said yes to Nato. There are signs that opposition to Nato among the young may actually be growing.

But the decision to join Nato is a minor tremor rather than an earthquake. While Sweden may have been non-aligned, it has not been neutral for a long time. 

Sweden’s pro-Western orientation during the Cold War was an open secret on both sides. As early as 1954, Sweden signed a top secret agreement with the US regarding collaboration and intelligence sharing, including spying on Russia, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed. Sweden already makes “particularly significant contributions” to the alliance, Nato says. Accession to the European Union in 1995 came at the cost of the abolition of neutrality as a principle. 

In this sense, joining Nato means Sweden is now shedding its mask of neutrality, rather than adopting a radically new stance.

Sweden in Nato means the post-Cold War era is emphatically over. The world is entering a new and unsettling phase. “Peace, love, Woodstock, Kumbaya, let’s dramatically slash defence spending and enjoy the peace dividend — that’s all over,” said Estonia’s president after Russia annexed Crimea. 

The point of any nation’s defence policy should be to provide its population with a secure space for peace, love and Kumbaya. There is an almost giddy excitement in much of the Swedish media about Nato membership. As we progress towards our armour-plated future, let’s not forget what we have lost.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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