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Uppsala English school defends 'tough love'

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Uppsala English school defends 'tough love'
10:15 CEST+02:00
The International English School in Uppsala is awaiting a reply from the Swedish Schools Inspectorate (Skolinspektionen) after being forced to defend its "tough love" teaching against an anonymous accusation that it was breaking the law.

"(I) want to do something for them and all the other children in this school whose integrity is being violated," a relative of one of the school's students claimed in his or her complaint to the inspectorate, which is tasked with monitoring schools across the country.

The formal complaint was submitted in November and alleged that students were being punished for showing their bra straps and for failing to address their teachers with a formal Mr and Mrs. In Sweden the common practice is the use of first names.

The school's principal Mikael Östling, however, said rules on dress and comportment were part of a contract signed by the parents, the children and the school upon enrolment.

"We think a distraction-free learning environment is more important than being able to show your underwear," Östling told The Local. "We follow the Swedish school laws, but we also have an Anglo-American heritage, which we are proud of and enhances our profile."

He added that the pupils were comfortable addressing their teachers as Mr and Mrs, which meant that the accusation in the official complaint that they were threatened with detention if they used teachers' first names was baseless.

"It's not true, it's never happened, and it's a non-issue," he said. "Respect between the student and the teacher goes both ways".

Östling furthermore claimed that it was telling that the anonymous complainant is not a parent of one if its pupils. The relative who lodged the complaint wrote that he or she had decided to take up the cause because the student's parents did not to see a problem.

"I am close to these children, but I am not their guardian. I've spoken to the parents but they won't recognize that their child doesn't feel well," the complaint read.

The IES network in Sweden has about 13,000 students. Its American-born founder Barbara Bergström penned the official reply to the state agency. She referenced the Broken Windows sociology theory that a clean and intact environment works to deter disruption. The statement in no way denied the school's focus on discipline but chose to entitle it a "tough love" culture.

A foreign-born mother with two children in the Uppsala school said she thought the school need not defend its culture in such strict terms.

"'Tough love' is a harsh way to describe themselves, as the teachers at English school are much kinder than the description makes it sound," the woman, who chose to remain anonymous, told The Local.

She decided to pull her daughter out of her local school near Uppsala after being shocked at the lack of discipline there. They moved into the centre of the town to register in another free school, before moving her to the English school in grade four.

"In first grade, my child was offered hearing protection to cover her ears because the other children were so noisy. To me, that's unbelievable," she said. "I was so shocked. We even moved 20 kilometres to be able to move schools."

She also felt that her children would not be encouraged to go above and beyond the knowledge requirements set out by the Swedish school curriculum, and wanted an environment where they were encouraged to achieve.

The more disciplined culture offered at the Uppsala International English School was part of helping them do so, said the woman, who herself works with teenagers and believes it is more effective to promote good behaviour than to punish bad behaviour.

"The school contract has some silly little things like no häng (no lowslung trousers), no chewing gum, and no visible bra straps, but I'd rather have a school with no 'häng' than one where everything is allowed," she said.

The mother-of-two said she had no objection to regular feedback on how her children were doing in school. A key component to the complaint lodged against the school was an accusation that teachers grade the children's work in grades four and five. Swedish law prohibits grades until sixth grade.

The English school instead used a colour-code system designed to show if a pupil is fulfilling what is termed "knowledge requirements" in particular subjects as outlined in the Swedish school law, which was reformed as late as 2011.

"Students can see (the colour codes), absolutely, to see if they have passed or not passed an assessment. But they are not grades in the definition set by the law," the principal said.

Parents, meanwhile, appear to find the colour coding helpful as it is clearer than lofty references to knowledge requirements.

"Referencing (them) during a parent-teacher conference doesn't really tell me anything as a parent," the mother with two children at the school said. She has never regretted putting her children in a learning environment that has a bigger focus on discipline.

"When I say strict I am comparing it to Swedish schools not to schools in England. The kids are treated with kindness and respect but there are boundaries," she told The Local.

"For me, what we had before, there were just no boundaries at all. In my daughter's old school, an eight-year-old came in to class and told the teacher to shut up."

Ann Törnkvist

Follow Ann on Twitter here

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