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.
Several foreign teachers at IES (Internationella Engelska Skolan) have spoken to The Local's @Richard_Orange about stress, overwork & moving to a new country for work only to discover you're underpaid compared to your Swedish colleagues. New in-depth piece https://t.co/iCLEBo9c5k
— Emma Löfgren (@ekjlofgren) January 19, 2022
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.”