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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: Sweden should welcome Russians who don’t want to kill Ukrainians 

Finland, Poland and the Baltic states are stopping Russians from leaving Russia. It would be a tragedy if Sweden did the same, says David Crouch.

OPINION: Sweden should welcome Russians who don’t want to kill Ukrainians 
An iron curtain is descending across Europe. But in contrast to the beginning of the Cold War, the curtain is being drawn down by EU countries – not Russia. 

Any day now, Finland is poised to ban Russians from entering the country on tourist visas, to keep out men who want to avoid being drafted to fight in Ukraine. Announcing the policy, the country’s foreign minister said Finland was becoming “a transit country for Russians who want to leave their homeland for fear of being forced into war, and this traffic could harm Finland’s international position”. Opinion polls put 70 percent of the public in favour of a ban.

The number of Russians entering Finland doubled following Putin’s imposition a week ago of a “partial” mobilisation of men for the war effort in Ukraine. Finland’s Border Guard service is demanding a border fence 2.5m to 4m tall, topped with barbed wire, to keep the Russians out – an idea that taken seriously by the government.

Our Nordic neighbour is following a trend: the Baltics and Poland have already put an end to visas for Russians, including conscientious objectors to the war. The Czech Republic said last week that Russian deserters will not receive asylum. 

“We see them not as antiwar people, we see them as anti-fighting-the-war people,” Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, told the New York Times. “They were not fleeing Russia when Bucha happened, when Kyiv was shelled or when any other horrific things happened in Ukraine.”

Latvia’s foreign minister chipped in: “Many Russians who now flee Russia because of mobilisation were fine with killing Ukrainians. They did not protest then. It is not right to consider them as conscientious objectors. There are considerable security risks admitting them and plenty of countries outside EU to go to.”

The EU is under pressure from some of these countries to ban Russian tourists, and has already made it much harder for Russians to get tourist visas. But the bloc is divided. Politicians from across the political spectrum in Germany, for example, want to offer asylum to Russian deserters. 

Sweden is starting to debate this question. As a shiny new member of Nato, some Swedes feel we need to show how tough we can be towards the Russian threat. And with a new government keen to stress its anti-immigration credentials, Stockholm may also be tempted to punish Russian travellers because of their brutal government. 

In a situation already tragic beyond the imagination, banning Russian draft dodgers would only add to the tragedy in Europe.

Men of fighting age have been brought up on a diet of state propaganda, pumping nationalism, racism, militarism and hatred of the West into the Russian mainstream. Access to independent and social media has been extremely restricted. Opposition to the “military operation” in Ukraine is punishable by 15 years in jail.

In these circumstances, the mood has changed slowly, fuelled by snippets of official information, incidents such as the death of a friend, social media posts and kitchen conversations. But the steady drip drip of doubt and fear has filled the cup to overflowing. 

Then came last week’s mobilisation, and the pace of change accelerated. Family men without military experience are being dragooned into the army and sent to the front line. A wave of anger has swept across the nation, with arson attacks on army recruitment offices, thousands of arrests and a revolt in Dagestan. The country’s security service itself says 261,000 men fled Russia in barely a week. At one point there was a queue of cars 13km long at the border with Kazakhstan.

For EU nations to turn away Russians who don’t want to fight in Ukraine is to abandon them in their hour of need. At they very moment when they are most open to alternative facts about the war in Ukraine, we would conform to the Kremlin’s propaganda picture of the West as hostile, self-interested and Russian-hating. 

Denying draft dodgers the right to get out of Russia means painting them all as representatives of an enemy with whom we are at war. There might be some short-term political benefits in terms of “uniting the nation”, but this would leave a deep scar on the European psyche.

The debate in Europe has not gone unnoticed in the White House, where the US National Security Council has cautioned against seeing all Russians as universally responsible for the disaster in Ukraine. 

“We also continue to believe it’s important to draw a line between the actions of the Russian government and the Russian people,” a spokesperson told the Financial Times. “We wouldn’t want to close off pathways to refuge and safety for Russia’s dissidents or others who are vulnerable to human rights abuses.”

Sweden has a history of welcoming men who don’t want to fight in unjust wars. Between 1967 and 1973, Sweden granted asylum to around 800 Americans fleeing the Vietnam war. Fifty years later, the decision by the European Court of Justice that Syrian draft dodgers can claim asylum in Europe gives Sweden the legal basis to extend this right to Russians.

What is happening now in Russia could be the beginning of the end of the war in Ukraine, and of the Putin regime. Sweden should welcome with open arms all Russians who would rather get out than be sent to kill Ukrainians. And we should pressure other EU countries to do the same. 

It is likely that Russia will soon close its own borders to stop men from escaping. But let’s not give them an excuse to do so. 

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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