Barbara Bergström simply can’t resist.
Never mind that most people in Sweden her age have long-since retired, spending their days toiling in the garden or tending to summer cabins.
Never mind that she’s made millions founding and building the Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES), one of Sweden’s most successful free-school juggernauts.
And never mind that she rarely shies away from giving orders and getting others to act according to her wishes.
Despite all that, the 69-year-old Bergström simply can’t resist stooping over to pick up scraps of paper as she roams the halls at one of “her” schools, which as of this year now tally 30 in number and enrol 20,000 students across Sweden and the UK.
Bergström, who was raised in Buffalo, New York, arrived in Sweden in 1968 to marry a Swede she met in the United States, but whom she eventually divorced.
“It wasn’t so much that I was looking for adventure, but maybe it was more an expression of my can-do attitude,” she explains when asked what prompted the move. “Sweden was a very different place then. I set about learning the language, but it wasn’t easy.”
Swedes also seemed to be a bit put off by her American energy and attitude.
“I was told that I smiled too much,” she recalls with a laugh.
Indeed, these days Bergström has plenty of reason to smile, having built IES from a single elementary school in a south Stockholm suburb to a sprawling network of schools often cited as an example of why Sweden’s “free school” model of school choice works.
IES students consistently score above average on national standardized tests, and more than 90,000 students are queuing on wait lists in hopes of gaining admission.
And finding the right personnel to ensure new IES schools live up to their “international” reputation often means traveling beyond Sweden’s borders.
Bergström at the opening of IES in Huddinge in 2013. File photo: IES
“We hire some 500 new teachers a year,” she explains. “We attend recruitment affairs in the US and Canada and England. In Canada alone this year we interviewed 170 people.”
Bergström is quick to add that more direct flights from Arlanda to teacher recruitment hotspots like Toronto, Minneapolis, and Vancouver would make it easier for IES to find and attract talented teachers to Sweden from across the Atlantic.
Whether travelling to and from her home in south Florida, visiting IES schools scattered across Sweden, or spending time in her summer home in western New York, Bergström takes to the air herself several times a year.
“I fly a lot,” she says.
And the importance of international air connections doesn’t end with the recruitment process, as many of the international staff that eventually move to Sweden to work at IES also do so with the understanding that they too will be able to travel back to their home countries without too much trouble.
“Recruiting people to Stockholm isn’t too much of a problem, but for our schools in smaller communities like Hässleholm or Umeå or Gävle…things can get much more difficult,” she explains. “These are all qualified people, and they are coming with a tremendous amount of young energy to bring a real international flair to the schools.”
Thus Bergström hopes very much that plans to shutter Stockholm’s Bromma airport don’t come to fruition, as it represents an important node that helps her and the staff at her schools stay connected.
“I don’t want Bromma to shut down. I often fly to Gothenburg and we’re setting up a new school in Umeå—that’s a long drive. Bromma makes getting there much more convenient.”
She also welcomes the prospect of Arlanda becoming a US pre-clearance airport, meaning travellers from Sweden could avoid customs hassles upon landing in the US and more US airports could receive direct flights from Stockholm.
“It’s a quality of life thing. The easier it is for our teachers to visit family back home in the US, the easier it is for them choose to stay in Sweden,” she explains.
Bergström started her Swedish career as a science teacher in the public school system, a rewarding experience at times, but one that also taught her “a bunch of things I vowed I would never do” if she were in charge.
And she put those lessons into practice when the opportunity arose to start a school of her own in the wake of 1992 “free school” reforms that paved the way for public funds to be used to run privately managed schools.
Bergström’s “tough love” approach with students and backing her principals “like a lioness protecting my cubs” proved a winning formula, but also drew criticism that pitted the fiercely committed educator against a suspicious establishment.
The school’s success has also brought Bergström unexpected wealth and recognition. She was named Entrepreneur of the Year in 2009, and in 2013 was named Swedish businesswoman of the year by consultancy EY.
In 2012, she reported income of 691 million kronor ($81.5 million), the highest in the country—something that raised more than a few eyebrows in a country where profits in the welfare sector is a hot topic of debate.
But Bergström isn’t embarrassed about being rewarded financially for her efforts.
“If you look at how this whole thing got started I feel that, yes, at the age of 69, I’m worth a few kronor,” she says. “And let me tell you how many millions I’ve paid in taxes,” she adds with a laugh.
In reality, Bergström’s salary has always been modest, with the 2012 windfall stemming from a decision to sell 75 percent of IES to US-based investment firm; a decision she insists had little to do with lining her own pockets and everything to do with securing IES’s long-term stability as her inevitable retirement creeps ever closer.
Bergström accepts her 2013 Swedish businesswoman of the year award. Photo: Jonas Borg
“I don’t lead a luxury life and why should I? What I like about being rich is that we can put the money to good use,” she says. As an example, she cites the foundation she and her husband, Dr. Hans Bergström, have set up to support Swedish projects for research, education and enlightenment, goals that stem in part from Bergström’s self-described “Buddhist tendencies”.
Long active in the Swedish-Tibetan Society for School and Culture, the Bergströms’ new foundation pays the full costs for ten talented Tibetan youngsters to attend university.
“The biggest liberating force is unquestionably education,” she explains.
‘I’m not above cleaning toilets’
While Bergström welcomes diversity in her schools and in Swedish society as a whole, she doesn’t mince words when it comes to her concerns about Sweden’s welcoming policy toward refugees.
“I feel that the current volume of immigration to Sweden from developing countries has to be curbed,” says the immigrant who came to Sweden herself more than four decades ago.
The problem, she explains, is that Sweden’s schools are often put on the front lines of integration without the resources to adequately cope with the challenge.
“When you have lots of new immigrants come to the school, it can be very difficult for the principals and the teachers to deal with,” she explains.
“If you want to do things right, you have to put a lot of resources into educating those children, who quite often have parents who don’t know how to read or write. That places a huge demand on schools.”
Recently, the integration challenges facing Sweden’s schools have been overshadowed by discussion of what to do about the poor performance of Swedish students on the OECD’s global Pisa education ranking.
Bergström believes Swedish schools are too often marked by a false egalitarianism and suffer from a lack of leadership.
“I’m not going to condemn the Swedish school system. There are a lot of really dedicated people out there, but it comes down to leadership. People need to know who the leader is,” she explains.
“The teacher is not the student’s buddy; the teacher is someone you look up to. I’m not putting teachers on a pedestal, but I’m not putting them on an equal level with the students either. There has to be adult authority and supervision in a school.”
While Sweden’s educational establishment remains tied in knots about school quality, Bergström has a homespun method for assessing a school’s learning environment.
“I visit the toilet. That tells you what you want to know,” she says.
As a firm believer that attention to detail is an important indicator of quality, Bergström recalls how she was once the one scrubbing toilets after taking a peek at the loo ahead of an open house at one of her schools.
“It wasn’t up to snuff, so I cleaned the damn toilet,” she recalls.
“And I’m not above cleaning toilets; I’m not above picking up stuff. If I can do that, and ask a student to give me a helping hand, that sets the tone.”
'Everyone’s favourite second language'
Bergström agrees that IES’s continued growth and popularity likely reflects Sweden’s increasing internationalization, both in terms of more foreigners moving to the country, but also in terms of the realization that a command of English is “key to the world”.
“English is everyone’s favourite second language,” she says with a smile, adding that IES also makes an effort to recruit native speakers of other languages taught at the school.
“IES schools are a reflection of today’s world; a mixture of kids and teachers with different backgrounds and nationalities. The energy this creates is a wonderful thing to see.”