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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: Racism doesn’t get much more obvious than Sweden’s refugee bias

When you look at Sweden's reception of Ukrainian refugees, it's clear that what was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria, is not considered good enough for white Christians from Ukraine, notes Stockholm University Professor Christian Christensen.

OPINION: Racism doesn't get much more obvious than Sweden's refugee bias

As thousands of Ukrainian refugees began to arrive in Sweden following the invasion by Russia, the headline of a recent opinion piece by the leader of Sweden’s far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrat party spoke volumes: ‘There is a Difference Between Refugees and “Refugees”’

For Åkesson and his nationalist supporters, Ukrainian refugees are “real” refugees. They are from ”a Christian country with a culture that is more closely related” to that of Sweden, while refugees who escaped Syria and Afghanistan were framed as being made up of millions of backward, poorly-educated “professional migrants” (his term) devoid of European values and sensibilities.

With this backdrop, recent comments posted on Twitter by a municipal council member in Sweden’s second-largest city, Gothenburg, provided a disturbing insight into how politicians, not only the far-right but on all sides of the political spectrum, use different sets of standards when considering Ukrainian and Syrian refugees. And how the vision of refugees held by the Swedish far-right has bled into the Swedish political mainstream.

On May 5, Daniel Bernmar, the group leader for the opposition Left Party in the Gothenburg municipal council, sent a series of tweets in which he detailed how fellow council members expressed dismay over the poor services and paltry benefits available to refugees arriving from Ukraine. While on the surface an egalitarian position, the irony, Bernmar pointed out, was that the levels of financial support and services about which they were complaining were set by the very same group of politicians…when the arriving refugees were predominantly Syrian.

In other words, what the local politicians considered to be acceptable support for Syrians was now considered unacceptable support for Ukrainians.

Bernmar detailed a number of the specific concerns expressed by his colleagues.

Members of anti-immigration Sweden Democrats complained that the small amount of spending money given to Ukrainian refugees meant that they could not even afford to take local buses. Why, they asked, had the policy of allowing refugees to ride for free been scrapped? Others asked how without access to public transport Ukrainian refugees could be expected to take their children to school or look for work? And, in perhaps the most Swedish of issues, municipal councilors expressed concern that Ukrainian parents could not send children under the age of three to state-subsidized daycare.

Bernmar noted that he had “never before heard these parties or people address the unacceptable social or economic situation for refugees.” He then addressed the elephant in the room. The dismay expressed by colleagues over conditions facing refugees – conditions the same politicians approved when refugees were Syrian – was unsurprising, he wrote, given that they, “did not previously apply to white, Christian Europeans.”

These revelations should come as no surprise. While seemingly at odds with Sweden’s reputation for openness and egalitarianism, the fact is that political parties at both ends of the Swedish political spectrum have adopted increasingly aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Yet, when structural discrimination is presented in such a transparent fashion, it is still jarring.

At the most fundamental level, the case demonstrates how perceptions of the value of human life and human dignity are shaped by ethnicity, religion, and nationality. What was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria just isn’t good enough for white, European Christians. Racism and ethnocentrism don’t come much clearer than that.

But this revelation cuts even deeper and wider. And it applies to nations beyond Sweden’s borders, where immigrants and refugees struggle to construct new futures. What is evident from the comments made by the local politicians in Gothenburg is that they are fully aware of the impact of their policies on the everyday lives of refugees, how the ability to participate in the workforce, for example, is dependent upon basics such as transportation and childcare. That “integration” isn’t just a question of some mythological will, but of available material resources.

To remember that with Ukrainians, but forget it with Syrians, is cynicism of the highest order. It is to amplify the smear that there is a difference between refugees and “refugees.”

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